Articles Posted in Constitutional 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

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Conar Groppel was charged with first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, first- and second-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief, first-degree burglary, and evidence tampering. Groppel notified the superior court he intended to rely on the defense of diminished capacity, and pursuant to AS 12.47.070(a) the court was required to appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or board-certified forensic psychologists to examine him and report upon his mental condition. Groppel also moved for a competency and culpability examination. This case presented questions regarding to whom these experts served, how they were to be chosen, and who had bear their costs. The Alaska Supreme Court answered that these were the court’s experts, that Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) had to provide them if API did not employ such qualified experts, then the superior court had to appoint qualified experts and the Alaska Court System had bear their costs. View "Alaska v. Groppel" on Justia Law

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Stacey Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after striking and killing two pedestrians while driving intoxicated. He was sued by the victims’ families. Graham appealed his sentence, arguing he could assert the privilege against self-incrimination in response to the families’ discovery requests based on: (1) his criminal sentence appeal; and (2) the possibility that he might file an application for post-conviction relief if his sentence was upheld. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded Graham could assert the privilege against self-incrimination in the civil proceeding based on the possibility that the decision on his pending sentence appeal might require a new sentencing proceeding where his compelled testimony in the civil proceeding could be used to his disadvantage. The Supreme Court declined to decide whether Graham was entitled to assert the privilege based on the possibility that he might eventually file an application for post-conviction relief because that issue was not ripe for review. View "Graham v. Durr" on Justia Law

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A mother appealed the termination of her parental rights to her son on findings of abandonment, mental injury, neglect and parental substance abuse. The mother challenged none of the superior court’s factual findings; rather, she alleged the court violated her due process rights during the termination trial by: (1) prejudging the case; (2) improperly assuming the role of a prosecutor while examining witnesses; and (3) relying on research and evidence outside the record to impeach witnesses and disregard testimony favorable to her. Asserting that the court’s actions deprived her of the right to an impartial decision-maker and amounted to structural error, she sought reversal and remand before a different judge. Although the Alaska Supreme Court agreed the court took inappropriate action with respect to witness testimony and other evidence regarding one issue at the trial, the Supreme Court concluded this did not amount to structural error and that it did not otherwise undercut the unrelated findings supporting the termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Sarah A. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Appellant Ronda Marcy, resident of Matanuska-Susitna Borough, filed suit against the borough and citizens who had sponsored a borough ballot initiative prohibiting commercial marijuana businesses. The suit, filed 32 days before the borough election, sought declaratory and injunctive relief that the initiative was unconstitutional and unlawful and should be removed from the election ballot. Given the imminent election, the superior court ordered the case held in abeyance pending the initiative vote’s outcome. After borough voters rejected the initiative, the court dismissed the case as moot. Marcy appealed, arguing the merits of her declaratory judgment claim should have been heard under the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine and that the superior court issued procedurally defective orders, violated her due process rights, and erroneously awarded attorney’s fees against her. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court because it did not abuse its discretion in its procedural decisions; the resident’s due process rights were not violated; the Court declined to invoke the public interest exception to address the moot claims; and the resident failed to properly bring her attorney’s fees appeal. View "Marcy v. Matanuska-Susitna Borough" on Justia Law