Alaska in Brief

Dictionary decides Alaska Supreme Court case

By: - May 11, 2022 2:00 am
The Boney Courthouse building in Anchorage holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Boney Courthouse building in Anchorage holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. On Friday, the court said that a dictionary definition of “official misconduct” was the key factor in proving the legality of an Anchorage Assembly recall election. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Supreme Court said last week that a dictionary definition of “official misconduct” was the key factor in proving the legality of a recall election against Anchorage Assembly Member Meg Zaletel. 

On Friday, the court released a legal opinion in a two-year-old, now-resolved dispute over a recall campaign seeking to remove Zaletel from office.

Zaletel handily defeated a recall vote in November and won re-election last month, but Friday’s opinion will be a factor for future municipal recall campaigns across Alaska. 

Those kinds of campaigns are multiplying as national political divisions spread into local government. Late last month, three Palmer city council members were recalled from office.

State law allows the recall of public officials for “misconduct in office, incompetence, or failure to perform prescribed duties.”

In Friday’s order, the supreme court said Anchorage municipal clerk Barbara Jones used an incorrect definition of “misconduct in office” when she rejected the petition in 2020 that sought Zaletel’s removal.

That rejection was overruled by an Anchorage Superior Court judge, and the Alaska Supreme Court issued a brief order in August upholding the lower court decision.

Expanding its decision on Friday, the high court noted that Jones used a definition of misconduct from the 2019 edition of Black’s Law Dictionary.

That definition requires corruption or abuse of office, something not alleged in the recall petition.

Jones should have used the edition of the dictionary used by lawmakers when they wrote the state’s recall laws in 1985, the justices said. 

That edition describes misconduct as “Any unlawful behavior by a public officer in relation to the duties of his office, willful in character.”

Concluding its commentary, the court noted its prior decision upholding the recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and said it continues to believe that recall laws must be “liberally construed so that ‘the people are permitted to vote and express their will.’”

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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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