Regardless of what you think about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s scathing letter complaining about how State Senator Lora Reinbold has treated his staff or characterized his administration during Senate committee hearings, or Reinbold’s video response decrying what she sees as executive overstep by the governor in response to COVID, something very important is happening below the surface. It transcends personal differences and bruised egos.

Sen. Reinbold has turned the Senate Judiciary Committee into a kind of inquisition against the gradual erosion of the Alaska Legislature’s constitutional powers – both through its own negligence and from actions taken by the executive and judicial branches of government.

On the judicial side, Alaska judges have repeatedly overstepped their constitutionally limited powers to strike down any duly passed laws which they deem intolerable. Nearly every pro-life law, no matter how limited in scope, has been uniformly reversed by the courts. The Supreme Court has gone so far as to order Dunleavy’s administration to pay for elective abortions, even though the Legislature, which controls the state’s purse strings, has explicitly forbidden this.

Historian Dave Barton told legislators that they must never relinquish their supremacy over the other two branches of government.

But it goes beyond abortion. Last year, the courts ordered the Division of Elections to cease from enforcing laws, passed by the Legislature, to ensure the identity of absentee voters. The court held that it was simply too burdensome to have someone witness and verify that an absentee voter was who he claimed to be.

On the executive side, numerous concerns have been raised about how the governor applied the extraordinary powers granted him by the Legislature to address COVID concerns. Over the past year businesses, churches, schools and myriad other entities and functions were ordered to cease or severely limit operations under the penalty of law.

Under Reinbold’s chairmanship, the Senate Judiciary is taking a long-overdue look at how the Legislature has gradually relinquished much of its constitutional authority to both the executive and judicial branches. On Feb. 24, she invited two national experts in U.S. history and constitutional law to address the Judiciary Committee. The public hearing was reminiscent of a college seminar class on separation of powers.

The Legislature must limit what the courts and executives can and cannot do to the people.

First, U.S. historian Dave Barton told legislators that they must never relinquish their supremacy over the other two branches of government. And where they have lost ground, they must reassert their constitutional rights. They are, after all, the branch closest to the people and therefore empowered to check both the courts and the executive. Failure to do so will always result in loss of liberty, he said.

It’s important to note the extraordinary powers granted to the Legislature. Not only does it control and appropriate state money, but it has power to remove governors and judges from office. Additionally, the Legislature can override vetoes and effectively enact laws even against the will of the governor. This is how our representative democracy was intentionally designed. Why? So that the branch of government most directly tied to the people – the Legislature – could safeguard our freedoms.

Following Barton’s presentation, the next person to address the Senate Judiciary was law professor and legal scholar Phil Kline. He warned of the dangers posed by judges and governors who overreach their powers and disenfranchise citizens in the name of safety.

He said science has a place in guiding public policy regarding pandemics and other threats, but it can only ever decide what is the case. How to respond is the moral question, and this must always be decided by the collective deliberation of the people.

Kline reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee members that the American form of representative democracy was founded, not primarily to keep people safe from all harm – whether physical or emotional – but to preserve personal liberties and inalienable rights bestowed on each man and woman by our creator. When these are threatened, by overreaching executive or judicial powers, it is up to the Legislature to intervene and place limits on what the courts and executives can and cannot do to the people.

If the misery of 2020 bears any good fruit, it will be a renewed and emboldened Legislative branch, committed to defending liberty and curtailing those who threaten it.

Click here to watch the Feb. 24 Judiciary Committee Meeting. The speakers begin at the 14:21 mark and the presentation last about an hour.

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Dunleavy/Reinbold dispute is part of a deeper struggle over legislative supremacy

Joel Davidson
Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 20 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.