Alaskan court orders state to initiate partner benefits

Posted on 21 Dec 2006 at 6:20pm
By Associated Press

Supreme Court refuses to extend deadline beyond Jan. 1, but also says state does not have to expand, revise rules for qualifying for benefits

ANCHORAGE, Alaska The Alaska Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 19, ordered the state to offer benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees by the Jan. 1 deadline it had earlier set, refusing to delay the implementation of benefits any further.

The high court said regulations earlier submitted by the state, which outline steps same-sex couples must meet, were valid.

Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday that officials will abide by the court’s decision.

“This is fantastic. Now we know that benefits will be in place as of Jan. 1,” said Michael MacLeod-Ball, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. The ACLU had filed the initial lawsuit.

It was not a total victory for the ACLU. The high court ruled Tuesday that a lower court overstepped its authority when it ordered the state to revise and expand proposed rules to comply with constitutional standards. In its October 2006 ruling, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides sided with the ACLU in finding that the regulations proposed by the state were too restrictive.

That wasn’t the point, the high court said Tuesday.

“Constitutional review of such details at the remedial stage of this case would hamper the primary goal of expeditious compliance and exceed the scope of the remedies sought in the original complaint,” the court wrote, referring to a 1999 lawsuit filed against the state by public employees and their same-sex partners.

“As long as the regulations attempt to offer the benefits mandated by our opinion in a rational and non-arbitrary manner, they must be approved,” the court wrote. “Any new constitutional questions arising from the details of the implementing regulations must be asserted by future challenge in separate proceedings.”

MacLeod-Ball said his sense of that part of the decision is “enough is enough, we made our decision, we don’t want any more dilly-dallying by the Legislature or the executive branch.”

In the 1999 case, the ACLU and nine couples filed a lawsuit challenging the lack of benefits for same-sex couples employed by the state and the municipality of Anchorage.

The high court ruled in October 2005 that denying benefits to same-sex domestic partners violated the state’s guarantee of equal protection for all Alaskans. That’s because the state constitution restricts marriage to between a man and a woman.

The high court last summer set the deadline for the state and the Municipality of Anchorage to begin providing the benefits by January and sent the lawsuit to the Superior Court for implementation. The municipality has since implemented regulations, complying with the law.

Scott Nordstrand, former commissioner of the Department of Administration, adopted the final regulation on Oct. 13 and sent it to the Department of Law and then-Lt. Gov. Loren Leman for filing.

Six days later, the ACLU filed a motion asking the Supreme Court to adopt even less stringent standards than what Nordstrand proposed.

On Oct. 30, the Superior Court ordered the state to ease its regulations by Nov. 1.

In the meantime, Leman questioned Nordstand’s authority to implement the regulations, and then-Gov. Frank Murkowski called a special session to deal with the issue.

Nordstrand vowed at the time that if lawmakers failed to implement regulations, he would. The Legislature didn’t take up the issue during its regular session and two subsequent special sessions on the natural gas pipeline contract.

During the third special session called specifically to address the benefits issue, lawmakers refused to grant Nordstrand authority to pass the regulations. Instead they passed a law ordering him not to implement them. That law, however, was never signed by Murkowski.

The state’s health and retirement benefits plan covers approximately 5,000 people at a cost of $340 million, Nordstrand earlier said. The cost of extending benefits to same-sex partners won’t be known until the regulations are in effect.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, December 22, 2006.

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