State judge to decide eligibility of Alaska lawmaker linked to Oath Keepers

a man in a tie stands in a meeting room
Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Monday, May 2, 2022 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)

A state judge will decide by Thursday morning whether Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman remains eligible for this fall’s general election.

Eastman and the Alaska Division of Elections have been sued by a Matanuska-Susitna Borough man who asserts Eastman’s lifetime membership in a far-right organization violates a clause of the Alaska Constitution that forbids public officials from supporting groups that advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. 

Randall Kowalke is seeking a preliminary injunction that would negate Eastman’s candidacy, though his name may stay on election ballots because they have already been printed.

a video meeting in a court case
This video screenshot from the Alaska Court System shows the parties in a lawsuit seeking to render Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, ineligible for this year’s state legislative elections. (Screenshot)

In a hearing Tuesday afternoon, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna heard oral arguments for and against Eastman’s disqualification and said he would take the case under advisement, with a ruling by Thursday morning at the latest.

Randall Kowalke, a former member of the Mat-Su Borough Assembly, filed suit July 29, one month after the Alaska Division of Elections rejected multiple challenges to Eastman’s candidacy.

Representing Kowalke is attorney Savannah Venetis Fletcher, who said much is at stake with the ruling from McKenna, an appointee of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“There’s the integrity of an election, the enfranchisement of voters in House District 27, and the risk that an ineligible legislator will remain on the ballot,” she said.

Kowalke’s lawsuit argues that Eastman’s lifetime membership in a group called the Oath Keepers violates the “disloyalty clause” of the Alaska Constitution.

That clause states: “No person who advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the United States or of the State shall be qualified to hold any public office of trust or profit under this constitution.”

Members of the Oath Keepers, including the group’s founder, have been accused of various crimes associated with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Several have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with federal prosecutors.

In a sworn affidavit, Eastman said he was present in Washington, D.C., at the time but did not participate in the insurrection and has never participated in “any Oath Keeper meeting or event.”

But Fletcher argued that Eastman still fails to meet the state’s constitutional standards. In written filings and on Tuesday, she said her case proves that Eastman is a member of the Oath Keepers, that the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government and that the Division of Elections has failed to properly enforce the constitution.

Joe Miller is representing Eastman. He is an attorney who unsuccessfully challenged Lisa Murkowski for U.S. Senate in 2010.

Speaking Tuesday, Miller called the case a “political hit” and said that if Eastman is disqualified, it would disenfranchise voters in his Wasilla district. He noted the results of the Aug. 16 primary election, in which Eastman received more than half of the votes for House District 27.

“Your Honor, the fact of it is, if we take him off the ballot … you’re basically disenfranchising over half that district,” Miller said.

Miller argued that Oath Keepers’ bylaws do not advocate violent action against the U.S. government and that some members’ crimes do not reflect on the organization as a whole.

“The Oath Keepers have been basically (dragged) through the media as this insurrectionist group, because as even admitted by plaintiff, a couple of dozen, maybe 32 people have been indicted out of the group,” he said.

That Eastman was present at protests preceding the insurrection is not proof that he advocates the overthrow of the government, Miller said.

“The people that were there on the 6th were there to preserve constitutional government,” he said.

“I think most of them still believe that they were complying with their constitutional oath — of course, we aren’t talking about the violence and the other things took place — but in protesting what was going on,” he said, drawing a line between insurrectionists and people who participated in protests preceding the insurrection.

If the accused Oath Keepers hadn’t been leaders of the group, or if Eastman had disavowed his membership in the Oath Keepers, Fletcher said, “it might be a different situation. But those aren’t the facts before us today.”

“This is not a case about political arguments and differences in opinion on what one does or doesn’t oppose. It’s about using violence to further your goals in a system instead of going through the proper political means,” Fletcher said.

McKenna asked Miller whether he would argue that Eastman is not a member of the Oath Keepers.

Plaintiffs, Miller responded, need to show that Eastman is a current member, not just a past one.

“Whether or not he’s currently a member, that burden is on them,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Lael Harrison, representing the Division of Elections, said the agency won’t say whether the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. 

Instead, she said, the state’s position is that the Division of Elections did not do anything wrong by failing to reject Eastman’s candidacy. Removing Eastman’s name from ballots would do more harm than good to the election process, she said.

“Anytime we tinker with (the election process), it has the potential to either cause an actual problem or cause a perception concern in the eye of the public,” she said.

Fletcher said that if it’s too late to remove Eastman from ballots, the Division of Elections could take alternative actions, such as mailing a notice that says Eastman has been deemed ineligible.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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