Alaska Attorney General started defending Juneau in a lawsuit. Then it changed its mind.

Passengers walk a downtown Juneau dock where three cruise ships are tied up June 11, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The State of Alaska briefly – very briefly – appeared ready to help the City and Borough of Juneau defend itself in a federal lawsuit brought by the cruise ship industry.

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But state lawyers withdrew less than 24 hours later.

The Alaska Attorney General’s office filed a 19-page brief in federal court defending Juneau’s fees on cruise ships and passengers.

The state attorney followed up with a 4-page motion explaining why the state takes an interest in the case.

It argued that the outcome of the lawsuit could impact the state’s own $5 per cruise ship passenger fee, which has survived past legal challenges from the industry.

That was Jan. 30. The state pulled its briefs the next day and asked to be withdrawn from the case.

Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills released a statement.

“The Department of Law yesterday filed notice that it withdrew its motion to file an amicus brief,” Mills wrote Thursday. “The amicus brief was filed in error due to internal miscommunications. The state will continue to monitor  this case, but the state is not a party to the case nor does it directly implicate state statute.”

Mills declined to elaborate further. But it directly contradicts the legal argument laid out by state attorneys in its original filings.

Juneau city officials are reacting with caution to the state’s apparent change of heart.

“We’re trying to figure what that means and we’re scratching our heads a little bit,” Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt said.

Watt said the passenger fees in Juneau and other communities are similarly structured, and that means the lawsuit’s outcome in Juneau could set a wider precedent.

“We’re defending our actions in the lawsuit and we think that our fees and Ketchikan’s fees and the state’s fees are legally similar,” Watt added. “And we’re waiting to see what their next step is.”

At stake is millions in cruise ship passenger and port development fees on vessels that call in Juneau during the busy cruise season.

In Juneau alone, that’s about $13 million when local and state fees are added together.

That’s why Juneau has spent more than $600,000 in legal defense since the lawsuit was filed in 2016.

In filings late last year, the cruise industry argued that the fees violated clauses of the U.S. Constitution that prohibit taxes on shipping. The case is headed to trial.

Juneau City Attorney Amy Mead said the state’s on and off maneuver is puzzling.

“I don’t know why it was withdrawn or what process hadn’t been followed or what they felt they needed to do,” Mead said Thursday.

“I don’t know if perhaps they are thinking of re-filing it or if they’ve just made a decision that this is not a direction they want to go in,” Mead said. “But it won’t really impact on how we proceed in our defense.”

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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