ANCHORAGE — A civil rights watchdog sued Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday over his budget veto of money for the state court system.
The ACLU of Alaska claims Dunleavy’s reduction of the Alaska Court System budget by $334,700 is an attack on the independent judiciary.
“Gov. Dunleavy is punishing the court for exercising its judicial power,” said executive director Joshua Decker at a news conference. “He’s threatening the court with further budget reductions if it makes decisions with which he disagrees. He’s improperly trying to influence the court and erode its independence.”
A spokesman for Dunleavy, Matt Shuckerow, did not immediately respond Wednesday morning to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Dunleavy last month vetoed more than $400 million from the budget approved by the Alaska Legislature, including $130 million from the University of Alaska.
Dunleavy’s reduction to the court system budget was tied to an Alaska Supreme Court decision on abortion.
“The Legislative and Executive Branch are opposed to State funded elective abortions the only branch of government that insists on State funded elective abortions is the Supreme Court. The annual cost of elective abortions is reflected by this reduction,” Dunleavy’s budget office wrote in the veto document.
The court this year struck down as unconstitutional a state law and regulation seeking to define what constitutes medically necessary abortions for Medicaid funding.
Dunleavy’s veto is a grossly inappropriate attempt to use money to coerce judges to a political end, Decker said, and it undermines the public trust in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
“The judiciary must be free and independent or all our rights will become hostage to the will of whoever incites the passion of the masses during each election cycle,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs, Bonnie Jack, a former Republican legislative staffer, and John Kauffman, a private attorney.
Jack said Dunleavy overstepped his authority for vindictive reasons.
Kauffman said he took an oath to uphold the Alaska Constitution. The governor’s vetoes were levied to punish the courts for doing what the courts were created to do, he said.
“That’s a blatant violation of the separation of powers, which is a cornerstone of our constitution and the United States Constitution,” Kauffman said.
The governor’s action is unprecedented in Alaska, Decker said. The lawsuit seeks to have court funding restored and the governor’s actions declared unconstitutional, Decker said. He’s not worried about a conflict of interest by judges handling the case.
“When our judges put on the black robe, they take an oath to honestly and impartially decide the case in front of them based on what the law and the constitution is,” he said.
• By Dan Joling, Associated Press