Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative 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 Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission denied an individual’s request for a hearing regarding a reported natural gas leak and whether the leak constituted “waste” under Alaska law. The agency concluded it had no jurisdiction over the matter because it previously had investigated and had concluded the leak did not constitute “waste.” The individual appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the agency’s decision. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding the individual's request for a hearing was improperly denied: "The Commission has jurisdiction over waste determinations, and substantial evidence does not support its assertion that it investigated and concluded this leak was not waste." View "French v. Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission" 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

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

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Appellant Beverly Sumpter worked as a school aide. She reported an injury to her cervical spine after she repositioned a disabled student in his wheelchair. Sumpter had significant preexisting cervical spine problems. Doctors disagreed about whether the incident she described could have aggravated these problems and if so for how long. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that her work was not the substantial cause of her ongoing disability and need for medical care, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Sumpter appealed, contending that the Board and Commission applied incorrect legal standards and that the Board failed to make findings about material and contested issues. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District" on Justia Law

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Property owners sued the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, challenging the validity of easements that crossed their property to give access to neighboring residences. The superior court dismissed most of the property owners’ claims on res judicata grounds, reasoning that the claims had been brought or could have been brought in two earlier suits over the same easements. The court also granted the Borough’s motions for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings on the property owners’ claims involving the validity of construction permits, redactions in public records, and whether the Borough had acquired a recent easement through the appropriate process. However, one claim remained: whether the Borough violated the property owners’ due process rights by towing their truck from the disputed roadway. The court found in favor of the Borough on this claim, and awarded the Borough enhanced attorney’s fees, finding that the property owners had pursued their claims vexatiously and in bad faith. The property owners appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court, View "Windel v Matanuska-Susitna Borough" on Justia Law

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After initially disputing that a corrections officer was permanently and totally disabled from injuries suffered at work, the State conceded his disability status. The parties did not enter into a written settlement or stipulation because they disagreed about the amount of attorney’s fees the State should pay the officer’s attorney. After a hearing the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded attorney’s fees under AS 23.30.145(a) in two parts: it awarded a specific amount of fees for work up to the time of the hearing and statutory minimum fees of 10% of ongoing benefits as long as the officer received permanent total disability benefits. The State appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the Board’s decision because in the Commission’s view the award was not manifestly unreasonable. The State then appealed the Commission’s decision to us. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak" on Justia Law

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A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a father’s parental rights to his two children after finding them children in need of aid because of their father’s domestic violence and aggressive behavior. The children were Indian children under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Therefore the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was required to make active efforts to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the family. At the termination trial, the superior court found clear and convincing evidence that OCS made active efforts but that these efforts proved unsuccessful. The father appealed, arguing only that the superior court’s active efforts finding was made in error. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the termination order. View "Ronald H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law