Bill to extend immunity to legislative staff passes committee

Posted: Tuesday, April 02, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill to extend to legislative staff the current immunity provisions that protect legislators passed a House committee on Monday.

The bill would protect staff members with access to confidential information from being forced to testify in some civil cases.

It is intended to protect staff from becoming embroiled in litigation when they perform constituent work, said the bill's sponsor.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said his staff member was subpoenaed to testify in a child custody case after she assisted a constituent before the Division of Family and Youth Services.

Legislators and staff are allowed access to some confidential files before state agencies, including cases involving minors.

Staff aide Rynnieva Moss testified before the House Judiciary Committee about being subpoenaed in February to appear in a Fairbanks Superior Court. The subpoena was quashed.

The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 506 with individual recommendations.

Reps. Jeannette James, R-North Pole; Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon; Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage; Norman Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, and Coghill all recommended the bill pass. Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, recommended against passing the measure.

Berkowitz said the measure could raise impediments to getting information from legislators and staff.

The state constitution currently protects lawmakers from statements they make and from arrest while traveling to or from the Legislature. Lawmakers can be arrested for felonies or ''breach of the peace.''

Past court rulings have interpreted state law to include legislative staff. The most recent ruling came in the lawsuit over the state's redistricting map.

Kevin Jardell, an attorney and an aide to Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, was subpoenaed to talk about his experience with the board.

While working for Green, Jardell attended 15 board meetings and later prepared an alternative plan for the board to consider.

Jardell had said he undertook the tasks as a private citizen and later was required to testify about his activities as a private citizen. He was not required to testify about work he performed as a legislative aide.

Jim Baldwin, assistant attorney general with the state Department of Law, said the proposed change would make it more difficult to call on staff to testify in court cases.

Coghill said the bill was not motivated by the Jardell case. ''The deal with my staff is exactly the reason I put this out,'' he said.

The bill now goes to the House Rules Committee where it could be scheduled for a floor vote.

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