Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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A married couple with two children legally separated. They agreed the father would pay the mother child support while they lived at separate residences and alternated custody of the children. This arrangement was incorporated into a separation decree. But instead of living apart, the couple continued to live together with the children at the marital home. During this time, the father paid the majority of the household expenses, but never paid the agreed-upon court-ordered child support. After three years of maintaining this arrangement, the couple divorced and the mother sought to collect the father’s accrued child support arrears. The father moved to preclude collection under Alaska Civil Rule 90.3(h)(3), and the superior court granted his motion. The mother appealed, contending that the plain language of Rule 90.3(h)(3) required an obligor-parent to exercise primary physical custody of a child before preclusion can apply. The Alaska Supreme Court noted it had previously recognized that the equitable principles underlying Rule 90.3(h)(3) could support preclusion in some circumstances that do not fit neatly within the Rule’s plain language. Because these principles applied to the unique circumstances of this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order precluding collection of the arrears. View "Aparezuk v. Schlosser" on Justia Law

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In Henry v. Alaska, the court of appeals held that a defendant who entered a plea agreement providing for a specific period of probation has the right, when being sentenced for a subsequent probation violation, to reject further probation and to serve a sentence of active imprisonment only. The court of appeals certified a question to the Alaska Supreme Court on whether the legislature intended to abrogate that right when it enacted AS 12.55.090(f). Jason Ray was arrested in October 2013 for stealing a pair of boots from a grocery store in Kodiak. Because Ray had two prior theft convictions, the State charged him with theft in the second degree. Ray pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement pursuant to Alaska Criminal Rule 11. The agreement called for Ray to receive a sentence of 24 months’ imprisonment with 20 months suspended, followed by three years of supervised probation. Ray served his four months in prison and was then released on supervised probation. Ray admitted that he had violated two conditions, and the superior court found that he had violated two others. At the disposition hearing, Ray announced that he wanted to reject further probation. However, in addition to sentencing him to serve 16 months, the superior court placed Ray on unsupervised probation for five years. The only condition of this unsupervised probation was that Ray obey the law. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded did intend to abrogate Henry: although AS 12.55.090(f) did not expressly mention a defendant’s right to reject probation, its plain text precludes a judge from reducing or terminating a previously-agreed-upon period of probation unless both the prosecution and the defendant agree, and the legislative history does not persuade the Court that the legislature intended something other than the plain meaning of the language it used. View "Ray v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A drunk driver lost control of his truck on a wet roadway and struck and killed two teenage girls. The driver pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder with a sentencing range of 13 to 20 years for each count. At the sentencing hearing, members of both victims’ families and two local law enforcement officers spoke, and the sentencing court viewed tribute videos for the two young victims. The court imposed a term of 20 years in prison with 4 years suspended on each count, for a composite sentence of 32 years to serve, noting that it was the highest sentence imposed in Alaska for an unintentional vehicular homicide. The court of appeals vacated the sentence based on several perceived errors in the sentencing court’s calculation of the appropriate sentence; it also identified evidentiary errors which it believed contributed to the emotionally charged sentencing hearing and improperly influenced the judge’s decision. The court of appeals directed that a different judge preside over resentencing. The State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court properly began its sentencing analysis in the benchmark range for second-degree murder and appropriately considered an aggravator. The Court could not conclude, as the court of appeals did, the superior court gave too much weight to the sentencing goals of general deterrence and community condemnation. The Supreme Court found it was an abuse of discretion to allow the testimony of two police officers as victim impact evidence and to admit victim tribute videos without first reviewing them for relevance and unfair prejudice. "We cannot say that the unusually severe sentence was untainted by these errors, but we do not believe that the superior court’s admission of the challenged evidence requires recusal on remand." The sentence was vacated and the case remanded for re-sentencing by the same judge. View "Alaska v. Graham" on Justia Law

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A defendant convicted of first-degree murder appealed his conviction to the Alaska court of appeals, arguing that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. The court of appeals agreed the instruction was erroneous but concluded that the error was harmless and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. The defendant the Alaska Supreme Court to ask that it reverse the court of appeals’ decision and his conviction because the erroneous instruction relieved the State of its burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. To this, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the decisions of the superior court and court of appeals and vacated defendant’s conviction because the challenged instruction was legally incorrect and impermissibly lightened the prosecution’s burden to disprove self-defense. View "Jones-Nelson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A man appealed a superior court order authorizing his civil commitment, arguing: (1) the order should have been vacated because the petition for commitment was not “signed by two mental health professionals,” as required by statute; and (2) the superior court erred by granting the commitment petition based on a theory of grave disability that was not specifically pled. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because the man did not object to the signature deficiency and could not show it prejudiced him, the error did not warrant vacating the commitment order. But, the Court found, committing the man on a theory of grave disability that was not specifically pled without giving him notice and an opportunity to present additional evidence or cross-examination relevant to that theory violated the man’s right to due process. The Court therefore vacated the commitment order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Carl S." on Justia Law

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The Alaska lieutenant governor refused to certify an application for a ballot initiative, and the group backing the initiative filed suit. In a court-approved stipulation, the Division of Elections agreed to print the signature booklets and make them available to the initiative’s sponsors without waiting for the court to decide whether the initiative application should have been certified. A voter sued the State, asserting that it would violate the initiative process laid out in article XI, section 3 of the Alaska Constitution if the signature booklets were printed and made available before the initiative had been certified. In response the State and the initiative group entered into a new stipulation providing that the State would not make the signature booklets available until the court ordered it. The superior court granted the State summary judgment in the voter’s suit, concluding that he lacked standing and his case was moot. The voter appealed, arguing he had standing and that his case should have been heard because of two exceptions to the mootness doctrine: the public interest exception and the voluntary cessation exception. Without reaching the issue of standing, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment on mootness grounds, concluding that the court did not abuse its discretion by declining to apply either exception to the doctrine. View "Young v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A number of young Alaskans — including several Alaska Natives — sued the State, alleging that its resource development was contributing to climate change and adversely affecting their lives. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief based on allegations that the State had, through existing policies and past actions, violated both the constitutional natural resources provisions and their individual constitutional rights. The superior court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the injunctive relief claims presented non-justiciable political questions better left to the other branches of government and that the declaratory relief claims should, as a matter of judicial prudence, be left for actual controversies arising from specific actions by Alaska’s legislative and executive branches. The young Alaskans appealed, raising compelling concerns about climate change, resource development, and Alaska’s future. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court correctly dismissed their lawsuit. View "Sagoonick, et al. v. Alaska, et al." on Justia Law

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A mother no longer wished to serve as her adult daughter’s guardian due to fear of her daughter’s violence. The superior court held a hearing to determine whether to allow the mother to resign and appoint a public guardian from the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) to serve as the daughter’s guardian instead. After a brief exchange, the superior court allowed the daughter to waive her right to counsel and consent to appointment of a public guardian. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed because the superior court did not sufficiently establish that the waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceeding of Amy D." on Justia Law

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After a narrow loss in the general election for Alaska House District 27, Lance Pruitt contested the result. The superior court dismissed Pruitt’s multi-count complaint for failure to state a valid claim. But in order to expedite the case’s eventual review, the court heard evidence on a single count: Pruitt’s claim that the Division of Elections committed malconduct that influenced the election by moving a polling place without notifying the public in all the ways required by law. After considering the evidence, the superior court ruled that Pruitt did not show either that the lack of notice amounted to malconduct or that it was sufficient to change the results of the election. Pruitt appealed only the count on which the court heard evidence. In order to resolve this election contest before the start of the legislative session, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a brief order stating that Pruitt had not met his burden to sustain an election contest. This opinion explained the Court’s reasoning. Although the count alleging inadequate notice should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim, the Court held it did not succeed on the merits. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment. View "Pruitt v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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This case concerned the effect of the Alaska Legislature’s failure to exercise its confirmation power during the disruptions in regular government activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature relied on a preexisting statute and a 2020 modification of it to assert that its failure to act is the same as a denial of confirmation for all those appointees, with the consequence that they could not continue to serve as recess appointments. The governor argued that his appointees remained in office and continued to serve until the legislature voted on their confirmation, one way or the other, in joint session. The superior court granted summary judgment to the legislature, and the governor appealed. In April 2021, the Alaska Supreme Court considered the appeal on an expedited basis and reversed the superior court’s judgment in a brief order, concluding that the laws defining legislative inaction as tantamount to rejection violated article III, sections 25 and 26 of the Alaska Constitution, which required that the legislature consider a governor’s appointees in joint session. This opinion explained the Court’s reasoning. View "State of Alaska, Office of the Governor Mike Dunleavy, in an official capacity v. The Alaska Legislative Council, on behalf of the Alaska State Legislature" on Justia Law