Alaska Supreme Court rules in favor of Jennie Armstrong, clearing her to serve in Legislature

Three justices heard arguments and split 2-1 in Armstrong’s favor on Friday afternoon

By: - January 13, 2023 4:28 pm

In this screenshot from Gavel Alaska, three members of the Alaska Supreme Court hear a lawsuit challenging the legislative eligibility of Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage. The hearing took place on Zoom, with participants including (top, center) Chief Justice Daniel Winfree, (top left) Justice Susan Carney, and (center left) Justice Jennifer Henderson. Also attending the hearing are attorneys Scott Kendall (center), representing Armstrong; Laura Wulff (center right), representing the state of Alaska; and Stacey Stone (bottom) representing the plaintiffs challenging Armstrong’s eligibility. (Gavel Alaska screenshot)

The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld the eligibility of Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, to serve in the state Legislature.

In a summary decision issued Friday, three of the court’s justices voted 2-1 to uphold a lower-court decision in Armstrong’s favor. The justices did not provide an immediate explanation for their decision; one will be published in the coming months.

Because two justices recused themselves and the remaining three split on the decision, it won’t set precedent for future election cases, but it does clear the way for Armstrong to take office when the 33rd Alaska State Legislature convenes on Tuesday.

“I’m humbled by the trust that my constituents have placed in me,” Armstrong said after the decision. “Now that this case is finally resolved, I’m excited to get to work on their behalf.”

Friday’s Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by Liz Vazquez, who lost to Armstrong by 10 percentage points in November’s general election, and four of her supporters.

Citing social media posts and fishing license applications first publicized by the Alaska Landmine website, the suit asserted that Armstrong moved to Anchorage in June 2019.

Plaintiffs sued the Alaska Division of Elections, and Armstrong intervened on defense.

The Alaska Constitution requires that a legislative candidate live in Alaska for three years before filing for office with the Alaska Division of Elections. 

If Armstrong had moved to the state after June 1, she would have lived here for less than three years and been ineligible. Attorneys representing Vazquez asked that the election result be thrown out and Vazquez be declared the victor.

In a brief trial last month, Armstrong and her husband, Ben Kellie, testified that she resolved to move to Alaska in May 2019, during a romantic vacation here.

She left the state briefly to gather personal belongings, then returned in early June.

Residency is defined in multiple places in state law. Attorneys Scott Kendall and Samuel Gottstein, representing Armstrong, relied on the definition set for voters, which says that changing residency “is made only by the act of removal joined with the intent to remain in another place.”

The intent to remain, they argued, took place in May 2019, when Armstrong decided to move to Kellie’s home in Anchorage.

Attorneys Stacey Stone, Richard Moses and Anna Cometa, representing Vazquez, argued for a different definition of residency, one billed as a “general catch-all” when it was imposed by the Alaska Legislature in 1983.

That law says someone establishes residency “by being physically present in the state with the intent to remain in the state indefinitely and to make a home in the state.”

A subsection of the law says in part that a person demonstrates the required intent “by maintaining a principal place of abode in the state for at least 30 days.”

The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the issue Friday afternoon, and Stone argued that the subsection means Armstrong’s residency didn’t begin until June, making her ineligible for office.

Chief Justice Daniel Winfree noted that Alaska’s high court has never before interpreted the 1983 definition of residency.

Last month, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Herman Walker observed that the high court has also never interpreted the “act of removal” language in the voter residency definition.

To resolve that issue, he turned to a 1909 Montana Supreme Court ruling that interpreted a law almost identical to Alaska’s. 

Using Montana law was inappropriate, Vazquez’s attorneys said in written arguments submitted to the court.

Stone suggested that if the court decides that residency relies on intent alone, it could open the door for visiting tourists to claim residency in Alaska, making them eligible for state benefits.

Attorney Laura Wolff, representing the state, said the Division of Elections relies on the residency definition used by Armstrong’s attorneys. 

The Supreme Court appeared to side with that argument as well, but the reasons for the 2-1 decision were not immediately clear.

When the case was filed, justices Peter Maasen and Dario Borghesan recused themselves from hearing it, leaving Winfree, Justice Susan Carney and Justice Jennifer Henderson.

Carney said in Friday’s order that she would have reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled against Armstrong’s residency. That left Winfree and Henderson to rule for the majority.

Rule 106(b) of the state’s appellate court procedures says that if the court decides a case with only three justices presiding, and if the decision is 2-1, the “vote is decided only for purposes of that appeal and shall not have precedential effect.”

That means Friday’s decision is not binding on future cases involving residency challenges.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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