Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Constitutional 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
Dunleavy, et al. v. Alaska Legislative Council, et al.
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
Aparezuk v. Schlosser
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
Ray v. Alaska
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
Alaska v. Graham
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