The Alaska Senate voted April 19 to remove Sen. Lora Reinbold (R-Eagle River) from her powerful post as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The vote was 17-1 with Reinbold casting the only vote in her favor. Sen. Roger Holland (R-Anchorage) is the new chair of Senate Judiciary.
Prior to the Senate voting to accept her removal as chair, Reinbold rose to object. She gave an impassioned defense of her work as chair of the committee, stating that Senate leadership could not pinpoint a specific concern from the “random and isolated thoughts expressed by caucus members that would support a legitimate reason to remove me from my Judiciary chairmanship.” Reinbold added that taking away her chairmanship severs an agreement that the Republican caucus established for the current Legislative session.
“Removing me as Judiciary chair is a very serious move,” she said. “I’ve received no formal complaints by members, no formal written concerns from leadership or members that have been brought before me and given me an opportunity to address.”
Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes said the reasoning behind Reinbold’s removal had mainly to do with what Hughes said were repeated and consistent violations of legislative rules governing decorum in the running of committee meetings and actions on the Senate floor. According to Hughes, this includes impugning the motives of fellow legislators and making demeaning comments to officials of the Dunleavy administration. Hughes said she and others in the Republican caucus have tried to work with Reinbold, but so far their efforts have come to naught. Her behavior, Hughes said, has created undue distractions in the Senate. If, however, Reinbold agrees to follow the rules of decorum, she will be restored to her Senate chairmanship, Hughes said.
Senate President Peter Micciche issued a statement on Reinbold’s removal, saying it was “a tough day” and expressing his hope that it “doesn’t have to be a permanent change, and we hope it’s not.”
Micciche echoed many of Hughes’ claims, saying that “the vast majority of caucus members have expressed concerns about the way committees are run and about the lack of respect for others in the building, including for other members, staff, and testifiers.”
“Until today, Senate Leadership had been resistant to changing the committee structure, as we believed we could improve the situation through internal dialogue,” he said of the Reinbold situation. “The vast majority of the caucus, however, recently made it clear that the status quo could not continue, and that something must be done.”
Micciche called Reinbold a “valued member of the Senate majority” and said he was “proud to have her on our team.”
On Monday evening, Reinbold categorically rejected Hughes’ claims that she had violated Legislative rules on decorum. She called Hughes’ criticisms “random frivolous accusations to justify her actions.”
Last month Reinbold caused a stir in the Legislature when she continued to wear a plastic face shield instead of a face mask, which Senate President Peter Micciche insisted she wear. That controversy seemed to have been resolved in recent weeks with Reinbold agreeing to wear a face shield that seals around the edges.
Reinbold’s April 19 speech made no mention of the mask controversy, but it did recount the turbulent interactions she has had with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the executive branch over much of the current session. This included the scathing letter Dunleavy sent out in February accusing Reinbold of using her Judiciary chairmanship to unduly criticize his administration’s response to COVID.
The governor’s letter said he was directing members of his administration to have no interaction with Reinbold in her capacity as Judiciary chair during the session. This caused turmoil among Senate leadership as they tried to work out the differences.
During her floor speech, Reinbold recalled that she was “cornered by the executive branch” to sign an agreement before Dunleavy would agree to have his staff interact with her as the chair.
“I declined,” she told her Senate colleagues. “I take the separation of powers very seriously. The agreement the executive branch wanted me to sign may be an infraction on the legislative process. I said boundaries must be respected. This was executive branch overreach in the affairs of Senate Judiciary.”
Reinbold suggested that her removal as Judiciary chair “appear to be a request by the executive branch to not recognize me as chair of the Judiciary.”
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Despite a frosty relationship with Dunleavy, Reinbold said she has remained committed to hearing the governor’s bills, which she had only formally received that morning – SB 53 and SJR 5, 6, and 7.
Speaking in her defense, Reinbold said she has only had one goal in mind as chair of the Judiciary – “to protect the constitutional rights of all Alaskans,” especially in the wake of a turbulent year which saw fundamental rights being violated to address COVID concerns.
“When it was clear to me that the people’s rights were being violated, I boldly spoke up,” she said. “Businesses have gone under that will never reopen. Jobs have been lost. Churches’ rights have been infringed upon by the executive branch mandates. Public and private schools have been closed for long periods of time by the executive branch. This put us into an educational crisis and the mental of many have been impacted. As the Legislature we must step up to fix these injustices.”
Reinbold noted that, under her leadership, the Judiciary has worked on judicial reform, election reform, PFD reform, establishing Legislative supremacy over the other two branches of government and strengthening the Open Meetings Act.
“A key focus of Judiciary has been upholding the Bill of Rights and civil liberties, even during a disaster,” she said.
Reinbold concluded by asking her colleagues to show her grace.
“Work with me,” she said. “Please honor the legislative branch and a member who needs your no vote today. I honorably ask you to vote no on this unnecessary action.”