Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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About two months before the 2020 general election, a village government, a nonpartisan political organization, and two individual Alaska voters sought to enjoin the State from enforcing a statute that required absentee ballots to be witnessed by an official or other adult. They argued that, under the unusual circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the witness requirement unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote. The superior court granted a preliminary injunction, concluding that the State’s interests in maintaining the witness requirement were outweighed by the burden that requirement would impose on the right to vote during times of community lockdowns and strict limits on person-to-person contact. The court also rejected the State’s laches defense, reasoning that the unpredictability of the pandemic’s course made it reasonable for the plaintiffs to wait as long as they did before filing suit. The State petitioned for review. After an expedited oral argument the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision, finding no abuse of discretion. This opinion explained the Court's reasoning. View "Alaska, Office of Lieutenant Governor, Division of Elections v. Arctic Village Council, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2012, the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) issued an advisory opinion stating that the contribution limits in Alaska’s campaign finance law were unconstitutional as applied to contributions to independent expenditure groups. In 2018, three individuals filed complaints with APOC alleging that independent expenditure groups had exceeded Alaska’s contribution limits. APOC declined to enforce the contribution limits based on its advisory opinion. The individuals appealed to the superior court, which reversed APOC’s dismissal of the complaints and ordered APOC to reconsider its advisory opinion in light of a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. APOC appealed, arguing that it should not have been required to enforce laws it viewed as unconstitutional and that its constitutional determination was correct. Because the Alaska Supreme Court found it was error to reverse APOC’s dismissal of the complaints, it reversed the superior court’s order. View "Alaska Public Offices Commission v. Patrick, et al." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on a challenge to the lieutenant governor’s decision that the sponsors of an initiative, “An Act changing the oil and gas production tax for certain fields, units, and nonunitized reservoirs on the North Slope,” had collected enough signatures to allow the initiative to appear on the ballot in the 2020 general election. Entities opposed to the initiative argued that signatures should not have been counted because the signature gatherers (the circulators) falsely certified that their compensation complied with Alaska election law. The statute governing circulator compensation allows them to be paid no more than “$1 a signature.” The superior court decided that this statute was unconstitutional because it imposed an unreasonable burden on core political speech — “interactive communication concerning political change.” It therefore concluded that the lieutenant governor properly counted the challenged signatures and properly certified the initiative petition for the ballot. The entities opposed to the initiative filed this appeal. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in August 2020, and on August 31 issued a summary order affirming the superior court’s judgment. This opinion explained the Court's decision. View "In re Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

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A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Alyse Galvin was an Alaska Democratic Party nominee for office, but registered as a nonpartisan voter. She sued to stop the state Division of Elections from sending out already-printed ballots for the 2020 general election, arguing that the Division’s ballot design, by omitting her nonpartisan voter registration, violated both a statutory directive to designate a candidate’s party affiliation on the ballot and Galvin’s right to free political association under the Alaska Constitution. After the superior court issued a temporary restraining order, the Division petitioned for review. But the following day, the superior court denied Galvin’s request for a preliminary injunction; the Alaska Supreme Court granted her emergency cross-petition for review and affirmed the superior court’s decision in a summary order with this explanation to follow. The Court concluded the Division’s evidence supported the superior court’s factual finding that granting Galvin’s requested injunction would have jeopardized the prospects of a successful and timely election. The superior court did not abuse its discretion by denying Galvin’s requested preliminary injunction because granting the injunction could have imperiled the public interest in an orderly and timely election. View "Alaska Division of Elections v. Galvin" on Justia Law

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Two women were hospitalized following psychiatric emergencies. In each instance hospital staff petitioned the superior court for an order authorizing hospitalization for evaluation, and the superior court granted the order. But the women were not immediately transported for evaluation because no beds were available at Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API). Each woman eventually moved for a review hearing to determine whether continued detention in a hospital was proper; in each case the superior court allowed continued detention. The women were finally transported to API more than 14 calendar days after their initial detentions. On appeal they argued their continued detention before being moved to API for evaluation violated their due process rights. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed, vacating the superior court order in each case: “We conclude there was no reasonable relation between the limited purpose of the evaluation orders and the extended duration of the respondents’ confinements. The State’s unreasonably lengthy detentions of Mabel and Sarah violated their substantive due process rights.” View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Sarah D. & Mabel B." on Justia Law

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A minor convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) argued that the statute that excluded misdemeanor traffic violations from juvenile court jurisdiction violated her right to equal protection under the Alaska Constitution. She argued that the mandatory jail sentence for first DUI offenders was unfairly different than the dispositions for other misdemeanors in the juvenile code. And she argued that it was unfair for felony DUI offenses to be charged in juvenile court when misdemeanor offenses were not. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that because driving was an adult activity, the legislature could reasonably decide to treat misdemeanor traffic violations consistently to promote public safety while also reasonably choosing to protect juvenile offenders from the harsh collateral consequences of a felony conviction. The Court, therefore, concluded the statute was constitutional and affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Watson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 2019, an attorney representing Vern H. in an unrelated matter petitioned the superior court for an order authorizing Vern’s hospitalization for a mental health evaluation. The attorney indicated that Vern said he needed to go to a behavioral health unit and threatened to hang himself. The attorney believed Vern was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to himself. After three days in jail, Vern contended he no longer met the criteria for involuntary detention, or should have been re-evaluated to determine whether continued detention was warranted, or if a less restrictive environment could have met his needs. This appeal raised two questions about involuntarily detaining an individual in jail pending transport to a hospital for a civil commitment mental health evaluation: (1) when transport is not immediately available and the individual requests a review hearing, what standard of proof applies to the individual’s continued detention; and (2) is the State required to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that jail is the least restrictive alternative available for the detention? The Alaska Supreme Court held that the probable cause standard applied to review hearings regarding an individual’s continued detention, and that the State must prove detention in jail is the least restrictive alternative available while an individual awaits transport to a hospital for evaluation. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Vern H." on Justia Law

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Members of the plaintiff class were former Alaska State employees. When they enrolled in the State employee retirement system, a statute provided that if they left eligible employment, withdrew their contributions to the system, and later returned to eligible employment, they could repay their withdrawn contributions, be reinstated to their original benefits level, and have their credited service time restored. The statute was later repealed. The superior court ruled on summary judgment that this repeal did not diminish or impair the former employees’ accrued benefits and was therefore constitutional. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory reinstatement right was an accrued benefit of the retirement system protected against diminishment or impairment by article XII, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Metcalfe v. Alaska" on Justia Law