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Joe Miller v. Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell

December 28, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ralph R. Beistline United States District Judge


The Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief was filed in this matter on November 9, 2010.*fn1 An Amended Complaint was filed on November 19, 2010, adding a third federal claim.*fn2 On December 27, 2010, Plaintiff moved to file a substitute Amended Complaint, which was in significant part identical to the prior Amended Complaint.*fn3 The Court notes that the substitute Amended Complaint contains primarily housekeeping changes. Although Defendants were not able to file an Answer to the Amended Complaint due to the stay in this matter and subsequent time constraints, the Court accepts the Amended Complaint as properly filed.

On November 19, 2010, this Court issued an order abstaining from consideration of the questions of state law and referring the parties to the appropriate state tribunal pursuant to Pullman abstention.*fn4 A district court abstaining under Pullman must dismiss the state law claims and stay its proceedings on the constitutional questions until a state court has resolved the state issues.*fn5 Pullman allows postponement of the exercise of federal jurisdiction when a federal constitutional issue might become moot or be presented in a different posture following a state court determination of pertinent state law.*fn6 This Court found that Pullman abstention was appropriate because 1) The complaint involved a "sensitive area of social policy" that was best left to the state to address;*fn7 2) a definitive ruling on the state issues by a state court could obviate the need for constitutional adjudication by the federal court;*fn8 and 3) the proper resolution of the potentially determinative state law issue was uncertain.*fn9

This Court retained jurisdiction to review any remaining constitutional issues once the state remedies had been exhausted. In order to ensure that serious state law issues were resolved prior to certification of the election, the Court enjoined certification of the election, ordering that the election should not be certified until the legal issues had been fully and finally resolved.*fn10

On December 10, 2010, Superior Court Judge William Carey issued a 34 page order disposing of the issues that arose under state law and ruling in favor of Defendants.*fn11 Working on an expedited briefing schedule, the Alaska Supreme Court considered Plaintiff's appeal and held oral argument on December 17, 2010. In a lengthy opinion, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld Judge Carey's Order.

The state issues having been fully adjudicated, this Court allowed briefing by the parties regarding the federal questions remaining before it. Plaintiff has filed a document entitled Motion for Partial Summary Judgment regarding Counts 1 and 2.*fn12 The State has filed a document entitled Opposition to Miller's Motion to Modify Preliminary Injunction*fn13 and a motion to expedite lifting the stay in this matter,*fn14 but has yet to specifically respond to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. Given the Court's conclusions below, no further responses are required. The Court now enters the following order.


Plaintiff alleges in his Complaint that Defendants overrode state law by establishing a policy whereby write-in ballots with misspellings could be counted. He argues that this act violates the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof."*fn16 Specifically, Miller complains that the process for counting the write-in ballots, as established by the Division of Elections in response to a large number of write-in ballots being cast, is unconstitutional because it does not comply with Miller's interpretation of the language of A.S. § 15.15.360(a)(11), which requires election officials to count a write-in ballot only if the candidate's name is written on the ballot "as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy." According to Miller's interpretation, any misspellings would not fulfill this criteria.

The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with Miller's interpretation of the statutory language and concluded that Miller's interpretation of the statute "would erode the integrity of the election system," holding that "voter intent is paramount."*fn17

The Court is not persuaded by Plaintiff's current argument, that the Alaska Supreme Court "effectively amend[ed] the clear rules that the Alaska Legislature set forth regarding the 'manner' in which U.S. Senate elections must be conducted, by allowing misspelled write-in ballots to be accepted as valid, and counted, in clear violation of State law."*fn18

Miller argues that "Federal courts have an independent obligation to interpret for themselves the actual meaning of a state legislature's enactments, without the usual deference to the State's administrative or judicial interpretations of them."*fn19

While this may be true if the interpretation given is "contrary to 'the face' of the statute and [contrary to] the State's past practice,"*fn20 the Alaska Supreme Court did not make a finding clearly contrary to the face of the statute and its findings were entirely consistent with the State's past practice of making voter intent a priority. This is not to say that Miller's technical arguments are frivolous, for it is easy to understand his view as to the proper interpretation of A.S. § 15.15.360(a)(11). But it is just as easy to accept the interpretation given by the Alaska Supreme Court. What we have before us is a poorly drafted state statute. Wisdom would suggest that the Alaska Legislature act to clarify it to avoid similar disputes in the future. For now we have to work with what we have and that is what the Alaska Supreme Court has done.

Generally speaking, the Alaska Supreme Court is the final expositor of Alaska law.*fn21 That must be the case here. It concluded that Miller's interpretation of the statute "would erode the integrity of the election system," and held that "voter intent is paramount." Under the facts presented, this Court declines to second-guess the highest Court of the state.

Moreover, this Court notes that when an election involves a "write-in" vote, human discretion on some level is inevitably required. Although Plaintiff describes the counting process used by the Division of Elections in this case as "vague, amorphous, and subjective,"*fn22 the fact remains that some process was necessary in order to tabulate write-in ballots in this election. Write-in ballots cannot be properly evaluated by a computer. The Division of Elections formulated a ...

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