Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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At trial, petitioner Kenneth Wahl offered an acquaintance’s testimony given during grand jury proceedings, invoking the former-testimony exception to the hearsay rule. The superior court excluded the evidence, reasoning that the State did not have the same motive to develop the acquaintance’s testimony at grand jury. The court of appeals agreed. The Alaska Supreme Court, however, concluded the former-testimony exception did not require the opposing party to have had an identical motive to develop the testimony during the previous proceeding. Here, the prosecutor’s motives at grand jury and at trial were sufficiently similar to fit this exception. "But we affirm based on the superior court’s alternate rationale: The defendant did not establish that he had used reasonable means to secure the witness’s attendance, and thus the witness was not 'unavailable' — a requirement for the former-testimony exception to apply." View "Wahl v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 2011 Justin Nelson was indicted on three felony counts of sexual abuse of a minor. He was initially represented by two attorneys from the Dillingham office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency. On the day of sentencing, and represented by a third public defender, Nelson moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that he had not understood the terms of the agreement and had received ineffective assistance of counsel. The superior court declined to appoint a different lawyer to represent him on the motion to withdraw his plea and denied the motion. When the superior court held the sentencing hearing the following week, Nelson told the court he had been expecting his third attorney to visit him because he had “some things that [he] needed for [the attorney] to say”; he also complained that he had not seen any discovery, transcripts, or other documents related to his case. He said, “[T]he reason I took a deal is because of ineffective assistance, and the reason why I took it back is because of ineffective assistance.” The court explained, however, that it had gone back over the record of the plea agreement and remained unconvinced that there was any reason to allow the plea’s withdrawal. And the attorney reiterated his view that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel should have been “litigated in post-conviction relief.” The court proceeded with sentencing over Nelson’s continued objections, finding that, while “the appointment of conflict counsel will often be the appropriate action in these circumstances, particularly because a different standard applies to a presentencing motion to withdraw a plea as opposed to a post-sentencing motion to withdraw a plea,” deference to the superior court’s discretion was appropriate given Nelson’s inability “to articulate or substantiate any specific assertions of how he had been incompetently represented” and the fact that sentencing “had already been delayed multiple times.” The Alaska Supreme Court held a public defender had a conflict of interest when the petitioner raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel against another public defender in the same office. The appellate court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for appointment of conflict counsel and reconsideration of Nelson's motion for withdrawal of his plea. View "Nelson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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The district court found that a woman, "Linda M.," charged with several misdemeanors was incompetent to stand trial and committed her to a state hospital. The hospital later brought petitions in the superior court for civil commitment and involuntary medication. Linda moved to dismiss or stay the proceedings, contending that the superior court was an improper forum because of the criminal case pending in the district court. The superior court denied the motion, asserted its jurisdiction to hear the case, and granted the hospital’s petition for authority to administer medication. Linda appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held the superior court properly asserted its jurisdiction over the civil commitment and involuntary medication petitions and that the superior court did not err in finding that involuntary medication was in Linda's best interests. View "In Re Hospitalization of Linda M." on Justia Law

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Connor J. was living at a shelter for homeless youth, when his psychiatric condition allegedly began to deteriorate. A social worker filed a petition in superior court seeking authority to hospitalize Connor for evaluation. The petition noted Connor had a history of suicidal thoughts; that he had been diagnosed at various times with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder; and that he had been treated for mental illness in the past at a hospital and several counseling centers. Connor was transported to Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) for an evaluation. A few days later API filed a petition for 30-day commitment and a proceedings were initiated that lead to his commitment. The superior court issued a 30-day involuntary commitment order after finding that Connor was "gravely disabled" and there were no less restrictive alternatives to hospitalization. The respondent appealed, arguing that it was plain error to find he waived his statutory right to be present at the commitment hearing, that it was clear error to find there were no less restrictive alternatives, and that the commitment order should be amended to omit a finding that he posed a danger to others, a finding the superior court meant to reject. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was not plain error to find that the respondent waived his presence at the hearing. We further conclude that it was not clear error to find that there were no less restrictive alternatives to a 30-day hospital commitment. However, because there was no dispute that the “danger to others” finding should not have been included in the commitment order, the case was remanded for issuance of a corrected order. View "In Re Hospitalization of Connor J." on Justia Law

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A 2014 statute and 2013 regulation re-defined which abortions qualified as “medically necessary” for the purposes of Medicaid funding. The statute defined medically necessary abortions as those that “must be performed to avoid a threat of serious risk to the life or physical health of a woman from continuation of the woman’s pregnancy” as a result of a number of listed medical conditions; the regulation was similarly restrictive. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest challenged both the statute and regulation as unconstitutional, and the superior court held that both measures violated the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution. The court reasoned that these measures imposed a “high-risk, high- hazard” standard on abortion funding unique among Medicaid services, and held that our 2001 decision striking down an earlier abortion funding restriction on equal protection grounds compelled the same result. The State appealed, arguing that the statute and regulation should be interpreted more leniently and therefore do not violate the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection clause. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision: the statute’s and the regulation’s facially different treatment of pregnant women based upon their exercise of reproductive choice required the Court to apply strict scrutiny, and the proposed justifications for the funding restrictions "did not withstand such exacting examination." View "Alaska v. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest" on Justia Law

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Dana Thompson was convicted of 13 counts of first degree sexual abuse of a minor and 4 counts of second degree sexual abuse of a minor stemming from a 4-year sexual relationship with the daughter of a family friend. The first degree sexual abuse of a minor convictions were based on the alternative theories that Thompson either: (1) occupied a “position of authority” over the victim; or (2) resided in the same household as the victim and had authority over her. Thompson argued to the court of appeals that the leading case interpreting the phrase “position of authority,” was wrongly decided. He alternatively argued that the jury was improperly instructed about the meaning of the phrase “position of authority.” The court of appeals rejected both arguments. Thompson also argued to the court of appeals that the superior court erred by failing to merge many of his convictions. The court of appeals rejected his argument that the rules for merger in sexual abuse of a minor cases should be different than the rules for merger in sexual assault cases. The court reaffirmed that for both types of cases the unit of prosecution is the distinct act of sexual penetration of different bodily orifices. But the court of appeals found that the superior court had misapplied the rules for merger and held that Thompson’s convictions for digital penetration, penis-to-genital penetration, and penetration with an object during the same time period merged because the same orifice was involved and the evidence was ambiguous as to whether each act “accompanied” the other acts. The State petitioned for review of the court of appeals’ merger ruling, proffering a rule allowing separate convictions for penetration with different objects or body parts, regardless of the time period. Thompson cross-petitioned, arguing the court of appeals’ rulings on “position of authority” and concluding that the jury was properly instructed, were erroneous. He also argued the unit of prosecution for merger purposes should be the “sexual episode” and that many of his convictions should have therefore merged. The Alaska Supreme Court found no error in the appellate court's judgment and affirmed. View "Alaska v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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The superior court issued a 30-day involuntary commitment order after finding that respondent Connor J was gravely disabled and there were no less restrictive alternatives to hospitalization. The respondent appealed, arguing that it was plain error to find he waived his statutory right to be present at the commitment hearing, that it was clear error to find there were no less restrictive alternatives, and that the commitment order should be amended to omit a finding that he posed a danger to others, a finding the superior court meant to reject. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with respondent's contentions. However, because there was no dispute that the “danger to others” finding should not have been included in the commitment order, the Court remanded for issuance of a corrected order. View "In Re Hospitalization of Connor J." on Justia Law

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Two separate appeals from involuntary commitment orders, brought by two appellants, one of whom also appealed a related involuntary medication order were consolidated for the Alaska Supreme Court's review. The challenged orders expired while the respective appeals were pending; the issue each case presented centered on whether the Supreme Court should revisit its mootness jurisprudence in involuntary commitment and involuntary medication appeals. The Court held that all appeals of involuntary admissions for treatment and involuntary medication were categorically exempt from the mootness doctrine. After reviewing each case on its merits and finding no error in the orders appealed, the Court affirmed in each case. View "In Re Hospitalization of Naomi B." on Justia Law

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In three criminal cases consolidated for appeal, each defendant sought to introduce expert testimony by a polygraph examiner that the defendant was truthful when he made exculpatory statements relating to the charges against him during a polygraph examination conducted using the “comparison question technique” (CQT). In two of the cases, the superior courts found that testimony based on a CQT polygraph examination satisfied the requirements for scientific evidence under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) and Alaska v. Coon, 974 P.2d 386 (Alaska 1999). In the third case, the superior court reached the opposite conclusion and found the evidence inadmissible. The issue these cases presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on the appellate standard of review for rulings on the admissibility of scientific evidence and to determine the admissibility of CQT polygraph evidence. The Court concluded that appellate review of Daubert/Coon determinations should be conducted under a hybrid standard: the superior court’s preliminary factual determinations should be reviewed for clear error; based on those findings and the evidence available, whether a particular scientific theory or technique has been shown to be “scientifically valid” under Daubert and Coon is a question of law to which the Court applies its independent judgment; and where proposed scientific evidence passes muster under that standard, the superior court’s case-specific determinations and further evidentiary rulings are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Applying this standard here, the Supreme Court concluded that CQT polygraph evidence had not been shown to be sufficiently reliable to satisfy the Daubert/Coon standard. View "Alaska v. Sharpe" on Justia Law

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Christopher Hess was convicted by jury of second and third degree assault. He appealed, arguing that the superior court committed plain error by not addressing improper statements in the prosecutor’s closing arguments. The court of appeals affirmed Hess’s convictions and held that, although some of the prosecutor’s statements were improper, they did not undermine the trial’s fundamental fairness. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the comments at issue here "affected important rights that could affect the fundamental fairness of the proceeding. The prosecutor suggested that the jury should consider his personal opinion of defense attorneys and Hess’s defense strategy. The prosecutor’s attack on the defense strategy and defense counsel was inappropriate, the comments were of no probative value, and they created a high potential for unfair prejudice." Because these statements were plain error, the Supreme Court reversed Hess' convictions and remanded for a new trial. View "Hess v. Alaska" on Justia Law