Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Constitutional Law
Alaska, et al. v. Alaska St. Emp. Ass’n, et al.
Alaska, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement with the Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA), a public sector union representing thousands of State employees, including union members and nonmembers, deducted union members’ dues from their paychecks and deducted from nonmembers’ paychecks a mandatory “agency fee” and transmitted the funds to ASEA. In June 2018 the United States Supreme Court held in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Janus) that charging union agency fees to nonmember public employees violated their First Amendment rights by “compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” The State and ASEA modified their collective bargaining agreement to comply with Janus, and the State halted collecting agency fees from nonmembers. In 2019, after a change in executive branch administrations following the November 2018 election, the State took the position that Janus also required the State to take steps to protect union member employees’ First Amendment rights. The State contended that Janus required it to obtain union members’ clear and affirmative consent to union dues deductions, or else they too might be compelled to fund objectionable speech on issues of substantial public concern. The governor issued an administrative order directing the State to bypass ASEA and deal directly with individual union members to determine whether they wanted their dues deductions to continue and to immediately cease collecting dues upon request. Some union members expressed a desire to leave the union and requested to stop dues deductions; the State ceased collecting their union dues. The State then sued ASEA, seeking declaratory judgment that Janus compelled the State’s actions. ASEA countersued seeking to enjoin the State’s actions and recover damages for breach of the collective bargaining agreement and violations of several statutes. The superior court ruled in favor of ASEA, and the State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s declaratory judgment in favor of ASEA because neither Janus nor the First Amendment required the State to alter the union member dues deduction practices set out in the collective bargaining agreement. And because the State’s actions were not compelled by Janus or the First Amendment, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s rulings that the State breached the collective bargaining agreement and violated relevant statutes. View "Alaska, et al. v. Alaska St. Emp. Ass'n, et al." on Justia Law
Guerin, et al. v. Alaska, Division of Elections
Alaska’s United States Representative Don Young died unexpectedly in March 2022. Following his death, Alaska held a special primary election and a special general election to select a candidate to complete the remainder of his term. Those special elections were conducted using ranked-choice voting procedures adopted by voters through a 2020 ballot measure. After the 2022 special primary election but before the vote was certified, the candidate who then had the third-most votes withdrew. The Division of Elections (Division) determined that it would remove the withdrawn candidate’s name from the special general election ballot, but would not include on the ballot the candidate who had received the fifth-most votes in the special primary election. Several voters brought suit against the Division challenging that decision. The superior court determined the Division’s actions complied with the law and granted summary judgment in favor of the Division. The voters appealed. Due to the time-sensitive nature of election appeals, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court in a short order dated June 25, 2022. The Court explained that because the Division properly applied a statutorily mandated 64-day time limit that prevented the addition of the special primary’s fifth-place candidate to the special general election ballot, and because the statutory mandate did not violate the voters’ constitutional rights, summary judgment was affirmed in favor of the Division. View "Guerin, et al. v. Alaska, Division of Elections" on Justia Law
AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources
Alaska Venture Capital Group, LLC (AVCG) owned interests in oil and gas leases on state lands. AVCG sought the State’s approval to create overriding royalty interests on the leases. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas denied AVCG’s requests, explaining that the proposed royalty burdens jeopardized the State’s interest in sustained oil and gas development. AVCG appealed. Five years later the DNR Commissioner affirmed. The superior court then affirmed the Commissioner’s decisions. AVCG appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the decisions improperly adopted a new regulation that did not undergo the rulemaking procedures of Alaska’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA). AVCG maintained that DNR’s reliance on specific factors - in particular, the fact that the proposed ORRIs would create a total royalty burden of over 20% on the leases - amounted to adopting a regulation. AVCG also argued that the decisions lacked a reasonable basis in fact and law and that, for some of its leases, no agency approval was required at all. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, and rejected AVCG's constitutional claim: that delay and an "ad hoc" decision-making process violated its procedural due process rights. View "AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources" on Justia Law
Nordlund v. Alaska Department of Corrections
Department of Corrections (DOC) officers charged a prisoner with conduct or language likely to interfere with the institution’s orderly administration and security. Following a hearing, a DOC hearing officer imposed a suspended sentence of 10 days’ punitive segregation. The prisoner appealed to the superior court, arguing that the charge was retaliatory and that he had been improperly denied the right to present in-person testimony at his hearing. The superior court rejected the prisoner’s arguments and found that DOC’s decision was supported by “some evidence,” reflecting the statutory standard of judicial review. On appeal, the prisoner argued his due process rights were violated by the hearing officer’s failure to allow in-person testimony and by DOC’s failure to include in the record on appeal a surveillance video viewed at the hearing. He also argued the superior court erred by applying the statutory “some evidence” standard of appellate review. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the prisoner did not show that he was prejudiced by the lack of in-person testimony at the hearing or the surveillance video’s omission from the record on appeal, and because the superior court properly applied the statutory standard of review, judgment was affirmed. View "Nordlund v. Alaska Department of Corrections" on Justia Law
Knolmayer, et al. v. McCollum
This case presented the questions of whether and how Alaska Statute 09.55.548(b) applied when the claimant’s losses were compensated by an employer’s self-funded health benefit plan governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that an ERISA plan did not fall within the statute’s “federal program” exception. Therefore AS 09.55.548(b) required a claimant’s damages award to be reduced by the amount of compensation received from an ERISA plan. But the Supreme Court also concluded that the distinction the statute draws between different types of medical malpractice claimants was not fairly and substantially related to the statute’s purpose of ensuring claimants do not receive a double recovery — an award of damages predicated on losses that were already compensated by a collateral source. "Because insurance contracts commonly require the insured to repay the insurer using the proceeds of any tort recovery, claimants with health insurance are scarcely more likely to receive a double recovery than other malpractice claimants. The statute therefore violates the equal protection guarantee of the Alaska Constitution." View "Knolmayer, et al. v. McCollum" on Justia Law
McDonald v. Alaska Department of Corrections, et al.
The Alaska Department of Corrections’s Parole Board denied inmate Donald McDonald’s discretionary parole application; he subsequently sought injunctive relief against the Department, the Board, and the Department’s then-commissioner (collectively DOC). The McDonald asked a superior court to return his parole application to the Board with instructions that the Board consider applicable factors and support its conclusions with substantial evidence. Concluding that McDonald should have brought a post-conviction relief application rather than a civil suit, the court granted a motion to dismiss. Because the McDonald's claim was a post-conviction relief claim, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision. But it noted that the appropriate action would have been for the court to convert the lawsuit to a post-conviction relief application. View "McDonald v. Alaska Department of Corrections, et al." on Justia Law
Kohlhaas, et al. v.Alaska, Division of Elections, et al.
In 2020 Alaska voters approved, by a slim margin, a ballot initiative that made sweeping changes to Alaska’s system of elections. The changes included replacing the system of political party primary elections with a nonpartisan primary election and adopting ranked-choice voting for the general election. A coalition of politically active voters and a political party filed suit, arguing that these changes violated the Alaska Constitution. The superior court ruled otherwise. The Alaska Supreme Court considered the appeal on an expedited basis and affirmed the superior court’s judgment in a brief order. The Court concluded the challengers did not carry their burden to show that the Alaska Constitution prohibited the election system Alaska voters have chosen. The Court published its opinion to explain its reasoning. View "Kohlhaas, et al. v.Alaska, Division of Elections, et al." on Justia Law
Short, et al. v. Alaska Office of Management & Budget
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
Alaska Department of Corrections v. Stefano
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
Office of Public Advocacy v. Berezkin f/n/a Smith et al.
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