Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
by
The Alaska Legislature created and funded the Higher Education Investment Fund (HEIF) to provide annual grants and scholarships to students pursuing post-secondary education in Alaska. The HEIF later was identified as potentially eligible for a sweep of its unappropriated funds. After the Legislature failed in 2021 to garner a supermajority vote required to prevent the sweep, a group of students (the Students) sued the Governor in his official capacity, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Department of Administration (collectively the Executive Branch), alleging that the HEIF was not sweepable. The superior court agreed with the Executive Branch, and the Students appealed. Because a previous case interpreting the constitutional provision governing the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) controlled, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to reject that precedent, and affirmed the superior court's determination that the HEIF was sweepable. View "Short, et al. v. Alaska Office of Management & Budget" on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) allows some inmates to serve a portion of their prison sentence outside a correctional facility while wearing electronic monitoring equipment. This case presented a jurisdictional question for the Alaska Supreme Court's review: did the superior court have jurisdiction to hear an appeal of DOC’s decision to remove an inmate from electronic monitoring and return the inmate to prison? Within that jurisdictional question iwass a more fundamental question: was DOC’s decision subject to the constitutional guarantee that “[n]o person shall be deprived of . . . liberty . . . without due process of law?” The Supreme Court held that due process applied. Although the Court rejected the argument that removal from electronic monitoring and remand to prison implicated the constitutional right to rehabilitation, the Court concluded that serving a sentence on electronic monitoring afforded a limited but constitutionally protected degree of liberty, akin to parole. Nevertheless, the Court held that the superior court did not have appellate jurisdiction to review DOC’s decision in this case. "Appellate review of an agency’s decision is possible only when the decision is the product of an adjudicative process in which evidence is produced, law is applied, and an adequate record is made. DOC’s decisional process in this case was not an adjudicative process and did not create a record that permits appellate review." The case was remanded to the superior court to convert this case from an appeal to a civil action so that the parties could create the record necessary for judicial review of DOC's decision. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Stefano" on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Supreme Court granted the Office of Public Advocacy’s (OPA) petition for review of whether counsel provided through Alaska Legal Service Corporation’s (ALSC) pro bono program was counsel “provided by a public agency” within the meaning of Flores v. Flores, 598 P.2d 890 (Alaska 1979) and OPA’s enabling statute. The Supreme Court concluded such counsel was indeed “provided by a public agency” and affirmed the superior court’s order appointing OPA to represent an indigent parent in a child custody case. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Berezkin f/n/a Smith et al." on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Legislature passed a bill in 2018 that appropriated money for public education spending for both FY2019, and FY2020. The second appropriation had a 2019 effective date. Governor Mike Dunleavy took office in December 2018, and disputed the constitutionality of the second year’s appropriation — and the general practice known as forward funding — asserting that it violated the annual appropriations model established by the Alaska Constitution. The Alaska Legislative Council, acting on behalf of the legislature, sued the governor, seeking a declaratory judgment that the governor violated his constitutional duties by failing to execute the appropriations and an injunction requiring him to do so. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the superior court decided that the appropriations were consistent with the legislature’s duty to fund public education, that they did not violate any specific constitutional provision, and that the governor’s refusal to disburse funds pursuant to the appropriations violated his duty to faithfully execute the laws. The court awarded attorney’s fees to the Legislative Council and the advocacy group as prevailing parties. The governor appeals the court’s grant of summary judgment and the award of attorney’s fees to the advocacy group. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court erred in its holding, and because neither the Legislative Council nor the advocacy group was prevailing party, the superior court’s attorney’s fees awards were vacated. View "Dunleavy, et al. v. Alaska Legislative Council, et al." on Justia Law

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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