WSJ July 20, 2019

Abortion Rulings in Alaska Prompt Governor To Cut Court Funding

By Ethan Millman | 660 words

Alaska’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter is suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy after he said he would cut funding for the state’s Supreme Court in retaliation to abortion-related rulings.

In a line-item veto, Mr. Dunleavy cut nearly $335,000 in funding for Alaska’s court system, which the Republican’s office said was the same amount the state pays annually to cover elective abortions under its Medicaid program. I

n February, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a 2001 decision that prevented restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions.

“The legislative and executive branch are opposed to state funded elective abortions,” the document issued by Mr. Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget stated. “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.”

In a complaint filed Wednesday in state superior court in Anchorage, the ACLU of Alaska asked for an injunction to restore the reduced funding.

“That isn’t just petty and vindictive; it is a clear assault on the constitutional power of the judiciary and a grossly inappropriate attempt to use money to coerce judges to a political end,” ACLU of Alaska’s Executive Director Joshua A. Decker said.

A representative for Mr. Dunleavy’s office referred inquiries to Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who said on a conference call Thursday that the governor’s veto was constitutionally allowed. He said the ACLU’s lawsuit would bring the court into budgetary matters, potentially violating the separation of powers.

Following the governor’s veto, Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger sent a memo to state’s court employees.

“Legislators, governors, and all other Alaskans certainly have the right to their own opinions about the constitutionality of government action,” Mr. Bolger said in the memo, “but ultimately it is the courts that are required to decide what the constitution mandates.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said retaliatory budget cuts against courts are rare.

“It’s deeply disturbing, because the courts are supposed to interpret the law without regard to what’s going to please the elected officials,” Mr. Chemerinksy said. Mr. Clarkson disagreed, arguing that the court could remain impartial.

“The court is big enough to take criticism, and our court certainly is,”he said. “I don’t expect them to modify their behavior based on the fact that the governor reduced their budget by a small amount.”

The total budget requested for this fiscal year for Alaska’s appellate courts, including its Supreme Court, is $7.1 million, a spokeswoman said.

It is rare but not unprecedented for state politicians to express their anger over court rulings by threatening to cut funding, said William Raftery, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts.

In 2015, lawmakers in Kansas passed legislation that would have eliminated state court funding if any judges struck down a controversial law that took some authority away from the state Supreme Court. However, legislators backtracked following lawsuits.

Mr. Dunleavy’s move comes as Republicans in other states are making a renewed push to outlaw abortion, an effort that could spark a new consideration of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The line-item veto is part of a broader battle between Mr. Dunleavy and legislators over the state’s budget. The governor last month vetoed $444 million of spending in Alaska’s $8.3 billion budget that took effect July 1 to help fund an increase in an annual oil royalty check sent to residents and decrease the state’s budget deficit. The cuts included a 41% reduction in funding for the University of Alaska system, which sparked protests.

During a disagreement over where they could legally meet, more than half the state’s legislators convened in Juneau earlier this month, where they failed to garner enough votes to override Mr. Dunleavy’s vetoes.

The full legislature was expected to gather in Juneau on Thursday, after which changes to the budget are scheduled to be considered, according to legislative spokesmen.