Judge orders governor to approve more money for Alaska’s courts

    In a court case that highlights the system of checks and balances in the Alaska Constitution, Superior Court Judge Jennifer Henderson ordered Gov. Mike Dunleavy to restore $334,700 to the appellate court’s budget. Her ruling came on Oct. 16.

    Judge Jennifer Henderson

    Dunleavy had used his constitutionally guaranteed authority to veto this exact amount from the judiciary’s 2020 budget after the Alaska Supreme Court ordered the state to pay for elective abortions in 2019. Dunleavy’s line-item veto was the same amount it would have cost the state to fund abortions through its Medicaid program.

    In issuing her ruling, Henderson claimed she was not questioning whether the governor had a right to use his rightful veto powers, but she complained that it was done in a way that “improperly” influenced the state’s judiciary.

    While Alaska’s court system has no power to allot funding for itself, Henderson’s order effectively mandates that the Legislature and the governor pay a specific amount to the courts, as determined by the court.

    Henderson claimed the court was “maintaining all due deference to its co-equal branches” of government, but she found it necessary to make her “very unfortunate” ruling. She said the governor was “punishing” judges for their abortion ruling and thereby threatening judicial independence.

    “The separation of powers doctrine simply cannot tolerate a construct in which the funding of the judiciary is based on the popularity of its opinions,” she wrote.

    Judge Henderson’s ruling comes just 18 days before Alaska voters will be asked to either retain her as a judge or remove her from the bench.

    Henderson went even further. She also ordered that Dunleavy’s additional $334,700 veto to the court’s 2021 budget be restored in full.

    It remains unclear what will happen at this point. Her decision could be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. If they uphold the lower court ruling, the next move would be up to the governor and the Legislature.

    Ultimately, the court cannot allot money for itself or issue payments. It can only provide an opinion on the issue and then leave the matter to the executive and legislative branches, which it does not control.

    Judge Henderson’s ruling comes just 18 days before Alaska voters will be asked to either retain her as a judge or remove her from the bench.

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