Lawsuit seeks to change Alaska legislative policy on vetoes, but the plaintiff is offering a deal

By: James Brooks, Alaska Beacon

Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, speaks Thursday, April 27, 2023, at a news conference in Juneau. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

For the past five months, Alaska political writer Jeff Landfield has been quietly pursuing a lawsuit against Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton that could permanently change the way the Alaska Legislature handles vetoes by governors.

The suit, filed in January, asks a state judge to confirm that the Alaska Legislature must vote on whether or not to override a governor’s veto. 

The Alaska Constitution states that legislators “shall” vote on veto overrides, but until this year, it had been the Legislature’s regular policy to not hold an override vote if the leaders of the state House or Senate were in alignment with the governor. 

Landfield is representing himself in court, and on Friday, Juneau Superior Court Judge Amanda Browning ruled that she was unable to consider the case because of a paperwork error.

Tilton, represented by attorney Kevin Cuddy, asked to have the case dismissed, but Browning declined that request and said that Landfield may refile the lawsuit.

“I have no comments,” Tilton said when asked about the lawsuit. “Absolutely none.”

After the ruling, Landfield made an unusual offer — he told Tilton by text message that he was willing to drop the lawsuit if the House hears a Senate-passed resolution declaring that it is the position of the Legislature that they shall meet on veto overrides.

Tilton did not respond to Landfield’s text message. 

The resolution, from Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, passed the Senate on a 13-7 vote in April but hasn’t received a hearing in the House. The resolution isn’t formally binding but would add pressure on future lawmakers who seek to avoid a vote.

There are eight days remaining in the Alaska Legislature’s regular session, and Claman said he’s asked for a hearing but hasn’t received it. Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage and chair of the committee holding Claman’s bill, said on Monday that he wasn’t familiar with Claman’s request.

A practicing attorney, Claman isn’t involved with the lawsuit but said he thinks it has merit. He said he’s not sure about whether Tilton, as a sitting legislator, may be at least partially immune from lawsuit, an issue that could develop if the case moves forward.

He didn’t ask for Landfield’s support on the resolution, but said of the deal the writer presented to Tilton: “That offer, to me, is pretty reasonable.”

Landfield, a political independent, operates the Alaska Landmine, a website that publishes a blend of news and opinion about Alaska politics. 

Flamboyant on other issues, Landfield kept quiet about the lawsuit for months.

“I’m not trying to make a spectacle of it, because I think it’s important,” he said. 

In Alaska’s history as a state, the Legislature has not been consistent in its handling of vetoes. In the publication “Alaska Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide,” the author Gordon Harrison wrote that through 2011, the Legislature had met to reconsider fewer than 100 of roughly 450 vetoes. It voted to override half of the vetoes it reconsidered. 

At the time of the suit, the Alaska House of Representatives had refused to meet to consider Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s 2023 budget vetoes.

“The constitution is really clear on this,” Landfield said, and although the House later changed its mind and voted to sustain the budget vetoes, it never considered the governor’s vetoes of two policy bills. 

Landfield said he wants a firm declaration showing what the Legislature should do in case of a veto.

In his view, if a governor issues a veto during the first year of the two-year legislative cycle, lawmakers should vote in the first days of the second legislative year, unless there’s a special session, in which case, the vote would take place during that special session.

Lawmakers wouldn’t be able to vote on a veto in the second year unless there is a special session.

While Dunleavy is a Republican and most Republicans in the House tend to vote with the governor, Landfield said people shouldn’t view this as a partisan issue. One day, he said, Alaska will have a Democratic governor, and that person should be held accountable as well.

Contacted Monday, he said he filed the lawsuit because he didn’t think anyone else would do it. 

“Also,” he said, “I’m a little bit excited about the idea that if the court rules a certain way, the second session on the veto override could be called the Landfield Rule.”