Alaska’s legislature has until Friday at midnight to override the governor’s attack on the state’s judicial system. No vote has yet been scheduled, and one-third of the legislators are in Wasilla, 800 miles away from the state capital.
Using a line-item veto, Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) recently slashed the budget of the state’s Supreme Court, due to its repeated protection of abortion rights. Dunleavy cut the budget of the Alaska Supreme Court and the court of appeals by 5%, as part of a sweeping set of cuts that also impacted the University of Alaska.
The legislature has been unsuccessful in overriding the veto, after 22 Republicans refused to come to the state capitol to discuss the budget earlier this week. The Republicans maintained that only the governor can decide where the legislature convenes, and they instead gathered in Wasilla, where Dunleavy called the session. There, they were met with protesters angry about the budget cuts.
Without a veto override, the University of Alaska is expected to fire hundreds of workers, slash its course offerings, and lose thousands of students. The speaker of the state House warned that the full impact of the cuts isn’t yet clear, noting that state funding could be tied to other funding sources for the university. Alaska has cut university funding in previous budgets, as the state’s has oil revenue declined in recent years, but the 40% cut is so steep that the university could declare a financial emergency.
But what’s at stake for the state’s courts is far more concerning.
Since 2001, the Alaska Supreme Court has struck down three laws that sought to ban or limit Medicaid funding for abortions. The court ruled in February that the state constitution’s Equal Protection clause doesn’t allow the state to impose “different requirements for Medicaid funding eligibility upon women who choose to have abortions than it does upon women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term.”
Last week, Dunleavy reacted to the ruling by imposing the 5% budget cut for the 2020 fiscal year and blocking a cost-of-living salary increase for judicial branch employees. The governor’s office stated that “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.”
The Hyde Amendment bans federal government funding for abortions. But states are allowed to use their own Medicaid funding for abortion, and Alaska courts have interpreted the state constitution to prohibit bans on those funds.
Many state constitutions protect abortion rights to a greater extent than Roe v. Wade, like Alaska, and state courts have the final say on the scope of these rights.
A group of 181 women lawyers have demanded that the legislature stop Dunleavy’s “attack on separation of powers and judicial independence.” The lawyers said the governor “is attempting to control Alaska judges by tying Court System funding to his personal agreement with judicial opinions.”
What’s happening in Alaska is a troubling trend in state politics in recent years.
In 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court faced an attempt by unhappy legislators to defund the entire court system. The court was under fire again in April, when it struck down a law limiting access to abortion. The justices said they had to determine what the constitutional rights to “liberty and inalienable natural rights mean in the real world today for a pregnant woman,” and it decided these rights require “meaningful limitations on the government’s ability to elbow its way into the decisions she must make concerning her pregnancy.” Kansas lawmakers are seeking to to amend the constitution and overturn the decision next year.
With the president and the Senate rapidly transform the federal courts, reproductive rights advocates – and those fighting for the rights of other communities — will increasingly have to turn to state courts for justice. That makes protecting their independence more important than ever before.
Billy Corriher is a consultant and freelance writer in North Carolina. His work focuses on voting rights, the courts, and judicial independence.