Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg is suing to kill subpoenas issued by the state Legislature in its troopergate investigation of Gov. Sarah Palin.
Colberg filed the complaint Thursday in Anchorage superior court, arguing the state Senate Judiciary Committee lacked authority to issue subpoenas demanding that potential witnesses testify in the investigation. He wants a judge to rule them invalid.
The attorney general’s lawsuit against state lawmakers is the first time Palin’s executive branch has brought the courts into its war with the legislative branch of government over the investigation. Now that Palin is the Republican nominee for vice president, the stakes are huge.
Palin's husband, Todd, and two state officials have refused to honor the subpoenas, leaving some state legislators suggesting jail time is a potential consequence. Colberg’s suit is on behalf of seven other subpoenaed Palin administration officials who are supposed to testify today but won’t.
"A normal subpoena wouldn’t be voluntary," Colberg, a Palin appointee, said in a Thursday interview. "We have questions about the validity of these particular subpoenas because of how they were done."
The lawsuit comes as Colberg faces growing criticism from state legislators and other critics who argue that the attorney general is treading dangerous legal ground as state employees defy legislative subpoenas.
The judiciary committee issued the subpoenas as part of the Legislature’s investigation of whether Palin abused her power by trying to get a state trooper fired who was in a custody battle with her sister. Palin's former public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, has said he believes he lost his job because he wouldn’t get rid of the trooper.
Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Hollis French responded, after reading the attorney general’s court filing Thursday, that the nation is built on a system of checks and balances between the different branches of government.
"For over 200 years, legislatures have exercised their right to oversee the activities of the executive branch. Denying us that authority undermines the basic democratic process,” said French, an Anchorage Democrat and former state prosecutor.
The chairman of the Legislative Council, which authorized the investigation, said he wished Colberg had gone to court earlier if that was his plan.
"“I'm relatively comfortable that I know how the court is going to rule. I think that the argument they can ignore subpoenas is specious," said the chairman, Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton. "I'm just sorry that he’s waited so long to do it because everyone knows that the clock is ticking."
The investigator hired by the Legislature, Steve Branchflower, is to present his report on Oct. 10.
Palin initially said she’d cooperate with the Legislature’s investigation. But that changed after she became the vice presidential nominee. The governor says she is cooperating with a separate investigation by the state personnel board. That one is out of public view and might not be finished before the Nov. 4 presidential election.
The McCain-Palin campaign argues it is the personnel board, not the Legislature, that has jurisdiction to determine whether Palin did anything wrong. The campaign said the Legislature’s investigation is a partisan witch hunt led by Democratic supporters of Barack Obama. It points to statements French made to the press that the report could be a damaging “October surprise” for Palin and that she faces possible impeachment.
The Legislature’s investigation is bipartisan. But not all lawmakers support it. Five Republican legislators have sued to stop it. Their attorney, Kevin Clarkson, on Thursday filed papers asking a judge for a temporary restraining order putting a halt to the investigation, or at least removing French, Elton and Branchflower from it.
"As the nation watches, senator French, senator Elton and Mr. Branchflower make the Alaska Legislature and the state of Alaska a laughingstock," Clarkson wrote in his request to the court. Clarkson argued the investigation is biased and that it’s an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers for the Legislature to get involved in the executive branch hiring issues.