Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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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

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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

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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

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A number of young Alaskans — including several Alaska Natives — sued the State, alleging that its resource development was contributing to climate change and adversely affecting their lives. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief based on allegations that the State had, through existing policies and past actions, violated both the constitutional natural resources provisions and their individual constitutional rights. The superior court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the injunctive relief claims presented non-justiciable political questions better left to the other branches of government and that the declaratory relief claims should, as a matter of judicial prudence, be left for actual controversies arising from specific actions by Alaska’s legislative and executive branches. The young Alaskans appealed, raising compelling concerns about climate change, resource development, and Alaska’s future. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court correctly dismissed their lawsuit. View "Sagoonick, et al. v. Alaska, et al." on Justia Law

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A mother no longer wished to serve as her adult daughter’s guardian due to fear of her daughter’s violence. The superior court held a hearing to determine whether to allow the mother to resign and appoint a public guardian from the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) to serve as the daughter’s guardian instead. After a brief exchange, the superior court allowed the daughter to waive her right to counsel and consent to appointment of a public guardian. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed because the superior court did not sufficiently establish that the waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceeding of Amy D." on Justia Law

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After a narrow loss in the general election for Alaska House District 27, Lance Pruitt contested the result. The superior court dismissed Pruitt’s multi-count complaint for failure to state a valid claim. But in order to expedite the case’s eventual review, the court heard evidence on a single count: Pruitt’s claim that the Division of Elections committed malconduct that influenced the election by moving a polling place without notifying the public in all the ways required by law. After considering the evidence, the superior court ruled that Pruitt did not show either that the lack of notice amounted to malconduct or that it was sufficient to change the results of the election. Pruitt appealed only the count on which the court heard evidence. In order to resolve this election contest before the start of the legislative session, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a brief order stating that Pruitt had not met his burden to sustain an election contest. This opinion explained the Court’s reasoning. Although the count alleging inadequate notice should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim, the Court held it did not succeed on the merits. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment. View "Pruitt v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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This case concerned the effect of the Alaska Legislature’s failure to exercise its confirmation power during the disruptions in regular government activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature relied on a preexisting statute and a 2020 modification of it to assert that its failure to act is the same as a denial of confirmation for all those appointees, with the consequence that they could not continue to serve as recess appointments. The governor argued that his appointees remained in office and continued to serve until the legislature voted on their confirmation, one way or the other, in joint session. The superior court granted summary judgment to the legislature, and the governor appealed. In April 2021, the Alaska Supreme Court considered the appeal on an expedited basis and reversed the superior court’s judgment in a brief order, concluding that the laws defining legislative inaction as tantamount to rejection violated article III, sections 25 and 26 of the Alaska Constitution, which required that the legislature consider a governor’s appointees in joint session. This opinion explained the Court’s reasoning. View "State of Alaska, Office of the Governor Mike Dunleavy, in an official capacity v. The Alaska Legislative Council, on behalf of the Alaska State Legislature" on Justia Law

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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