U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts stated that “My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” Nevertheless, Alaska’s Supreme Court rejected that principle in favor of judicial activism. In a recent opinion, the court ruled that a component of Alaska’s sex offender registry is unconstitutional because it insufficiently protects the rights of violent perpetrators.
A man was convicted of sexual assault in Virginia and was required to register as a sex offender when he moved to Alaska. He subsequently challenged that requirement, and a majority of the court agreed, arguing that forcing him to register without giving him a chance to prove he wasn’t a threat violated his due process rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. This decision has led to shock and anger among Alaskans both because of the threat it poses to public safety and the flawed legal reasoning of the decision itself.
While there is a legitimate policy discussion to be had regarding whether or not we should afford tried and convicted offenders a mechanism to be removed from the registry, the dissent appropriately notes that “the opinion is thus asking the Superior Court to perform what is essentially a legislative function.” We have laws that take away convicted felons’ guns, garnish their Permanent Fund dividends and deny them the right to vote. Yet including their name on a list of known predators was unduly burdensome? This is the very definition of judicial activism.
Given the Supreme Court’s willingness to set aside duly enacted legislation simply because they don’t like it, is it any surprise to see similar behavior in the lower courts? Consider the case of Echo Terry, who was convicted of 12 felonies, including second degree assault and child abuse. The prosecution asked for a sentence of 27 years, which the judge, Michael Wolverton, sentenced her to, but promptly suspended all but 17 months of that sentence. It remains to be seen whether she will be given credit for time spent on electronic monitoring, but it is entirely possible that she will serve zero additional jail time simply because he didn’t think she deserved it. In fact, the judge even said “the job of a sentencing judge would be much easier if we were only called upon to sentence monsters.”
There is a disturbing trend in Alaska’s judiciary of protecting sex offenders and child abusers from the consequences of their actions with little mention of the victims. Whether it is the Echo Terry case above, a judge admitting that the average person would probably find his sentence of a violent sexual predator “breathtaking” for its leniency, or the Supreme Court’s concern that “Sex offenders are among the most despised people in our society. Widespread publication of their conviction and personal details subjects them to community scorn and leaves them vulnerable to harassment and economic and physical reprisals.” Clearly, their concern for the well-being of violent offenders supersedes their concern for victims being vulnerable to the harassment and physical reprisals of these predators.
This is not to undercut the importance of protecting the rights of those who have been accused of serious crimes. The health of our adversarial system of justice is predicated on it. Nor does it reject the value of reintegrating felons back into society once they’ve served their time. The health of our communities demands it. But we cannot tolerate activist judges subverting these legitimate interests to offer aid and comfort to violent predators. This is a slap in the face to victims and insults the conscience of all decent people.
Isaac Williams is a co-founder of No More Free Passes, a grassroots group formed after the Justin Schneider sentencing to advocate for greater accountability for domestic violence and sexual assault.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.