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Alaska House of Representatives elects speaker for 2021 session

On Feb. 11, twenty-four days after the 2021 legislative session began on Jan. 19th, the Alaska House of Representatives elected a permanent speaker of the House. Members elected Rep. Louise Stutes (R) in a 21-19 vote.

Since the start of the session, House members had been divided between supporters of a Republican-led majority and those favoring a multipartisan coalition. Republicans won a 21-19 majority in the 2020 general election, but in December, Stutes joined the coalition bloc composed of 16 Democrats and three independents, leaving each faction with 20 members.

In January, Reps. Bart LeBon (R), Laddie Shaw (R), and Neal Foster (D) were nominated for the speakership, but each vote ended in an even 20-20 split. On Feb. 4th, the House unanimously elected Rep. Josiah Patkotak (I) as temporary speaker. Rep. Ben Carpenter (R) said the House Republican Caucus nominated Patkotak, who is a member of the coalition bloc, to “alleviate the Lt. Governor from his temporary responsibility as presiding officer and to move the discussion forward about finding a permanent presiding officer.”

Rep. Kelly Merrick’s (R) vote for Stutes ultimately broke the recurring tie votes. Merrick said, “Today, I voted to elect Republican Representative Louise Stutes as Speaker of the House, ending more than three weeks of deadlock and allowing the Legislature to move forward. It was by no means an easy decision to make, but it ensured that no matter how organization comes together, there will be a Republican Speaker.”

The three-week period without a House speaker is the second-longest in the state’s history. In 2018, similar divisions kept House members from electing a speaker until Feb. 14th, 2019, when a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker and agreed to split other key leadership and committee positions between the two parties.

With split control of the House and Republican control of the Senate and governor’s office, Alaska’s trifecta status remains divided. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers. There are currently 23 Republican trifectas, 15 Democratic trifectas, and 12 divided governments where neither party holds trifecta control. After the 2020 elections, Republicans had a net gain of two trifectas and two states under divided government became trifectas.

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Kansas state Senator Bud Estes dies

On Feb. 13, Kansas Sen. Bud Estes (R) died after being hospitalized with an illness. Estes was first elected to state Senate District 38 in 2016, serving until his death. Before that, Estes was a member of the Kansas House of Representatives, representing District 119 from 2013 to 2017.  

Estes ran for re-election to the Kansas Senate on Nov. 3, 2020, winning with 68.9% of the vote to Edgar Pando’s (D) 31.1%. In addition to his public service, Estes had owned a farm implementation business.

Republican precinct committee members will select Estes’ replacement, with Gov. Laura Kelly (D) officially making the appointment. Since the vacancy occurred before May 1 of the second year of Estes’ term, the appointee will serve until the next general election in November 2022. A special election will then be held for the seat, with the winner serving the remainder of Estes’ term.

As of Feb. 16., there were 28 Republicans, 11 Democrats, and one vacancy in the Kansas state Senate. Kansas has a divided government, and no political party holds a state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.  

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U.S. Senate acquits former President Trump of incitement of insurrection

The U.S. Senate acquitted President Donald Trump (R) of incitement of insurrection on Feb. 13. All 50 Democrats and seven Republicans voted guilty. The other 43 Republicans voted not guilty. The seven Republicans to vote guilty were:

◦ Richard Burr (R-N.C.)

◦ Bill Cassidy (R-La.)

◦ Susan Collins (R-Maine)

◦ Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

◦ Mitt Romney (R-Utah)

◦ Ben Sasse (R-Neb.)

◦ Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)

Trump is the only president to be impeached twice by the House. Trump was previously acquitted of abuse of power by a vote of 52-48 and obstruction of Congress by a vote of 53-47 on Feb. 5, 2020.

Georgia Supreme Court chief justice announces 2021 retirement

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton scheduled his retirement from the bench for July 1, 2021. Melton said he would begin his post-retirement planning following this announcement. Melton’s replacement will be Governor Brian Kemp’s (R) third nominee to the nine-member supreme court.

Under Georgia law when an interim vacancy occurs, the seat is filled using the assisted appointment method of judicial selection. The governor selects the interim justice from a slate of candidates provided by the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission. The commission recommends at least five candidates to the governor unless fewer than five applicants are found to be qualified. There is no requirement that the governor appoint a candidate from the nominating commission’s list.

Chief Justice Melton joined the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005. He was appointed to the court by Governor Sonny Perdue (R).

Before serving on the state supreme court, Melton began his legal career in the Georgia Department of Law. He went on to serve as a section leader with the Consumer Interests Division. He also served as executive counsel to Gov. Perdue.

Following Melton’s retirement, the Georgia Supreme Court will include the following members:

• Michael P. Boggs: appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in 2017

• David Nahmias: appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) in 2009

• Nels Peterson: appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in 2016

• Charlie Bethel: appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in 2018

• John Ellington: elected in 2018

• Carla W. McMillian: appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2020

• Sarah Warren: appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in 2018

• Shawn LaGrua: appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2020

In 2021, there have been eight supreme court vacancies in seven of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have been caused by retirements.

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Washington Supreme Court rejects recall petition of county sheriff

A petition seeking to recall John Snaza from his position as sheriff of Thurston County, Washington, was ruled to be legally and factually insufficient by the Washington Supreme Court on February 11, 2021. This court ruling ended the recall effort.

The recall effort started after the sheriff’s office released a statement on June 24, 2020, saying “it would be inappropriate for deputies to criminally enforce” the state’s mandate to wear a mask in public places. Recall supporters said the sheriff’s statement was impeding the efforts of state and city governments as well as emergency and hospital officials to protect the public. Snaza said it was his intent to educate people about the law rather than arrest them.

The recall petition was initially approved for circulation on July 29, 2020, by Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton. Snaza filed an appeal against that ruling with the state supreme court. If Snaza’s appeal had been rejected, recall supporters would have had 180 days to collect 23,027 signatures to get the recall on the ballot.

Two other sheriff recall efforts were appealed with the Washington Supreme Court in 2020. Both appeals were rejected, and the recall efforts were allowed to circulate petitions.

In 2020, Ballotpedia covered a total of 226 recall efforts against 272 elected officials. Of the 49 officials whose recalls made it to the ballot, 29 were recalled for a rate of 59%. That was higher than the 52% rate for 2019 recalls but lower than the 63% rate for 2018 recalls.

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Federal Register weekly update: Biden administration publishes first significant final rule

Image of the south facade of the White House.

The Federal Register is a daily journal of federal government activity that includes presidential documents, proposed and final rules, and public notices. It is a common measure of an administration’s regulatory activity.

From February 8 through February 12—the fourth week of the Biden administration—the Federal Register grew by 896 pages for a year-to-date total of 9,432 pages. During the same period of the Trump administration in 2017, the Federal Register grew by 690 pages for a year-to-date total of 11,130 pages.

The Federal Register hit an all-time high of 95,894 pages in 2016.

This week’s Federal Register featured the following 472 documents:

• 374 notices

• six presidential document

• 34 proposed rules

• 58 final rules

One final rule concerning liquidity risk measurement standards was deemed significant under E.O. 12866—defined by the potential to have large impacts on the economy, environment, public health, or state or local governments. Significant actions may also conflict with presidential priorities or other agency rules. The Biden administration has issued two significant proposed rules and one significant final rule as of February 12.

Ballotpedia maintains page counts and other information about the Federal Register as part of its Administrative State Project. The project is a neutral, nonpartisan encyclopedic resource that defines and analyzes the administrative state, including its philosophical origins, legal and judicial precedents, and scholarly examinations of its consequences. The project also monitors and reports on measures of federal government activity.

Click here to find more information about weekly additions to the Federal Register in 2019, 2018, and 2017: https://ballotpedia.org/Changes_to_the_Federal_Register 

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Click here to find yearly information about additions to the Federal Register from 1936 to 2018: https://ballotpedia.org/Historical_additions_to_the_Federal_Register,_1936-2018

Iowa lifts statewide face-covering requirement

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) issued an order easing coronavirus restrictions, effective Feb. 7. The order lifted the statewide mask mandate and limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings. Reynolds first issued the face-covering requirement on Nov. 17, requiring everyone two years or older to wear masks in indoor spaces open to the public where social distancing could not be maintained.

Iowa is the third state to lift a statewide public mask mandate. Mississippi’s statewide order expired Sept. 30, 2020, and North Dakota’s order expired Jan. 18, 2021.

Thirty-six states currently have statewide mask orders, including all 23 states with Democratic governors and 13 out of the 27 states with Republican governors.

New Mexico state Rep. Phelps Anderson changes party affiliation

New Mexico state Rep. Phelps Anderson changed his voter registration from Republican to “declined to state” on Feb. 5 after he was the only Republican to vote in favor of repealing a 1969 anti-abortion law.

Phelps was first elected to House District 66 in 2018 and ran uncontested for re-election in 2020.

Of the 70 members in the New Mexico House, 45 are Democrats, 24 are Republicans, and one is an independent.

This is the third state legislator in New Mexico to switch parties since 1994. Rep. Andrew Nunez changed his partisan affiliation to independent on Jan. 25, 2011. Nunez represented District 36 from 2001 to 2013. On Nov. 10, 2020, District 12 Rep. Brittney Barreras changed her partisan affiliation from independent to Democratic. Barreras is currently serving her first term in the House.

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Doris Turner, Mike Simmons appointed to Illinois state Senate

On Feb. 6, two new state legislators were appointed to fill vacancies in the Illinois state Senate. Doris Turner (D) was appointed by the Democratic county chairs of the 48th Legislative District Committee to fill the seat formerly occupied by Andy Manar (D). Manar left office in January in order to take a position as senior advisor to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D). 

At the time of her appointment, Turner served as Ward 3 Alderman for the city of Springfield, Illinois. She previously worked for the State of Illinois for 33 years, 22 of which were with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Mike Simmons (D) was appointed by the Cook County Democratic Party committee to fill the District 7 seat left vacant by the retirement of Heather Steans (D) in January. Steans cited a need for “fresh eyes and fresh energy,” and that it was “time to pass the baton.” Simmons is the founder of Blue Sky Strategies & Co. and previously worked as a policy director for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). 

When a vacancy occurs in the Illinois state Senate, the Illinois Constitution requires that it be filled by appointment by the political party that last held the seat. The new legislator must be chosen by the party organization covering the legislative district within 30 days.

The Illinois state Senate is the upper chamber of the Illinois General Assembly. With the appointments of Turner and Simmons, the current partisan breakdown of the chamber is 41 Democrats, 18 Republicans, and no vacancies.

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Idaho Supreme Court justice announces retirement

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Roger Burdick is retiring on June 30, 2021. He was appointed to this position in 2003 by Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and retained by voters in 2004, 2010 and 2016. His current term would have expired in January 2023. Burdick’s replacement will be Republican Governor Brad Little’s first appointment to the supreme court. 

Under Idaho law, the Idaho Judicial Council selects supreme court justices to fill vacancies. When a seat on the court becomes vacant, the commission submits two to four names to the governor to determine the replacement. The justice selected by the governor will complete Justice Burdick’s term which ends in January 2023. A nonpartisan election to elect a justice for the next six-year term will be held in May 2022.

Following Burdick’s retirement, the Idaho Supreme Court will include the following members:

G. Richard Bevan – appointed by Gov. Butch Otter (R) in 2017.

Gregory W. Moeller – appointed by Gov. Butch Otter (R) in 2018.

Robyn Brody – elected in 2016 to an open seat on the court.

John R. Stegner – appointed by Gov. Butch Otter (R) in 2018.

Before Burdick’s retirement, a Republican governor appointed four justices to fill vacancies on the court and one justice was elected. The state of Idaho holds nonpartisan elections for seats on the supreme court. 

In 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 91.5% of the cases they heard. Justices dissented in 12 of the 140 cases heard by the court and ruled unanimously in the other 128.

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