Should governor have assigned executive authority before surgery?

Gov. Bill Walker on Nov. 4 announces he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. His family surrounds him during the brief news conference.


In mid-December, Gov. Bill Walker travelled out of Alaska for major surgery to remove cancer from his prostate. The surgery may have taken place on Dec. 15, but the specific date has not been made clear by his office; he was announced to be recovering from the surgery on Dec. 15.

Although Walker had made a dramatic announcement of his cancer six weeks earlier, with his entire family present, he kept all further information private.

The time and place of his surgery was not known, although he had indicated it would be not in Alaska.

Walker did not, from all indications, assign executive powers to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott for the duration of what turned into a four-hour surgery.

In November, Walker said he expected the surgery would take three hours and that he would be back to work the next day or shortly thereafter.

In reality, he was not heard from for several days, although he may have been working from his hospital bed.

Walker was seen on a flight from Arizona to Alaska on Dec. 20. His press office has demurred on answering questions in recent days, stating he would not answer media inquiries as to whether a foreign government should have paid for his travel this fall and given him gifts due to his status of being in recovery.


The Alaska Constitution does not require the governor to assign executive powers prior to a surgery or other incapacitation, so it’s a judgment call.

Other governors have faced similar decisions and come to different conclusions.

New York Gov. George Pataki, in 2006, faced emergency appendectomy surgery and quickly assigned authority to Mary O’Donohue, New York’s lieutenant governor, for the duration he was under anesthesia.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011 had a scheduled hip surgery and assigned executive powers to the lieutenant governor, Todd Lamb, for the time she was under anesthesia, which was anticipated to be three hours.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in 2015 assigned his duties to Lt. Gov.Sue Ellspermann for the duration of his hernia surgery, writing in advance that he would transmit a document after surgery stating when he would assume his duties and a “declaration that no inability exists.”

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter last year had his hip resurfaced and assigned acting governor status to Lt. Gov. Brad Little. Little received an official letter letting him know the time and place of his upcoming gubernatorial powers, but told Boise Public Radio that at times, it’s been a more spontaneous temporary transfer of powers:

“One time the Governor went to a rodeo in Oregon on a Sunday afternoon. [My] phone rang and he says, ‘I’m getting ready to cross the bridge, [so] you’re governor — I’ll be back in a little bit,'” Little described.

But Alaska Gov. Walker chose a different path. A records request to Alaska’s Attorney General for the decision-making process for whether he should turn over his executive authority during his surgery was denied on the basis of attorney-client privilege.

There was, the Attorney General’s office said, an email exchange between Walker and Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, with a total of three pages, but the AG’s office decided it will not release them.

A four-hour surgery is not a minor procedure and complications can arise for a man of Walker’s age.

Other surgeries that take four hours include coronary artery bypass graft surgery, the most common heart surgery, which takes between three and six hours. A kidney transplant takes between two and three hours.

The question about turning over the reins of government to the man who has become his very close associate, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, comes down to a judgment call: Why did Gov. Walker not feel the need to provide the state with the assurance that, should an earthquake occur or another emergency arise, it was clear who was in charge?

The Alaska Constitution, Section 9, speaks vaguely to the role of the acting governor: “In case of the temporary absence of the governor from office, the lieutenant governor shall serve as acting governor.” There is no further indication of what “absence of the governor from office” means.

Alaska’s first governor, Bill Egan, became ill shortly after he assumed office in January, 1959. He was in a Seattle hospital until April of that year, and during that period Lt. Gov. Hugh Wade served as acting governor.

Must Read Alaska has made further public records requests to determine if any still undisclosed documents exist that the governor may have signed prior to traveling to Arizona for surgery.

With Alaska law remarkably vague regarding transfer of power in the event of the absence or temporary incapacitation of the Governor, perhaps in due course the Legislature will consider addressing the question by statute.