Judge moves David Eastman eligibility case to Palmer, nixes trial by jury

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)

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna has granted a request to move the upcoming legislative eligibility trial of Rep. David Eastman to Palmer, instead of Anchorage.

In an order issued Tuesday, he approved a request from Eastman attorney Joe Miller to move the trial in order to make it more convenient for witnesses. McKenna remains the judge in charge.

With a separate order issued the same day, McKenna rejected Eastman’s request for a jury trial, saying the issue of Eastman’s eligibility does not cover a financial matter. The order means McKenna, rather than a jury, will decide the case.

The Alaska Constitution requires trials in criminal cases or civil lawsuits involving an amount over $250.

Eastman, a Republican from Wasilla, is on course for re-election based on the uncertified and incomplete results of the Nov. 8 general election but is facing a lawsuit that challenges his eligibility to serve as a state legislator.

If successful, the lawsuit could prevent him from being seated, resulting in a second-place finisher being seated instead.

The suit, filed in July by Matanuska-Susitna Borough resident Randall Kowalke, alleges that Eastman’s membership in a militia known as the Oath Keepers violates the disloyalty clause of the Alaska Constitution.

That clause prohibits a public official from belonging to or supporting an organization that advocates the violent overthrow of the state or federal government.

Eastman purchased a lifetime membership in the group years ago and has not publicly disavowed that membership. Miller, his attorney, has said that it is up to plaintiffs to prove that Eastman remains a member.

Members of the group, including several of its leaders, have been accused of various crimes associated with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Several, including the group’s founder, are currently on trial in federal court. Eastman has not been accused of a crime.

After Kowalke’s lawsuit, Eastman requested a jury trial, citing the Alaska Constitution. McKenna rejected that request on Tuesday, concluding that because Kowalke is asking only for injunctive action and not a financial award, “Alaska law is clear that decisions on equitable relief must be made by the court,” McKenna wrote.

Eastman and his attorney had argued unsuccessfully that if Eastman is deemed ineligible for office, he would lose his legislative salary and benefits, thus causing a financial penalty.

The trial to determine Eastman’s eligibility will revolve around two key questions: Is Eastman a member, and do the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force?

The trial is expected to run from Dec. 12 through Dec. 21. A pretrial conference has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday.

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: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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