Alaska to pay $1 million in legal fees after losing abortion-related lawsuit

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's administration has agreed to pay $1 million to close a lawsuit in which the courts declared that an anti-abortion parental notification initiative was unconstitutional.

The payment of legal fees to a group of plaintiffs led by Planned Parenthood is contingent on the Alaska Legislature putting the money in next year's budget. Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican who was one of three sponsors of the 2010 citizens initiative that put the parental notification law into place, said she didn't expect the settlement to become a political issue.

The Alaska Supreme Court struck down the initiative in July, ruling that the measure violated the state Constitution's equal protection guarantee. It required minors who want abortions to first tell their parents, though the law also said a minor could ask a judge instead.

Alaska law requires payment of "full reasonable attorney fees and costs" to the winners of a constitutional claim, and a Superior Court judge, John Suddock, signed off on the $995,000 settlement Wednesday.

The settlement spared the state a costly legal fight over the group's attorney fees, which likely would have been higher if they were set by the courts, said Chief Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh.

Asked if there were safeguards to protect the state from having to defend lawsuits over unconstitutional initiatives, Paton-Walsh said that the lieutenant governor's office, which supervises elections, won't stop an initiative from appearing on the ballot unless it's "plainly unconstitutional."

The constitutionality of the 2010 parental notification legislation was ambiguous enough that it was largely upheld in a 2012 ruling by Suddock.

And, Paton-Walsh said, the initiative also came after a 2007 Alaska Supreme Court ruling that struck down a more restrictive law requiring parental consent for abortions. In that ruling, Justice Dana Fabe left the door open for a parental notification law, which she said "may actually better serve the state's compelling interests."

The settlement, said Paton-Walsh, is the "price of having an open system whereby policymakers can experiment, while at the same time having a world in which people can go to the courts to protect their constitutional rights."

Asked about the settlement Friday, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, Jessica Cler, said that the group would challenge laws "that create barriers to safe and confidential reproductive health care."

The July decision in the parental notification case has incensed social conservatives, who have launched a campaign to remove Supreme Court justices Peter Maasen and Joel Bolger in the next election.

The two justices, who supported the July decision, are up for retention on the November ballot, where voters will decide whether to keep them on the court for 10 more years.

One of the justices' opponents, Jim Minnery, described the Planned Parenthood settlement as "more fuel" for the removal campaign.

"This is one more big, big, big reason to pass these two justices into a place where they can't make this kind of decision again," said Minnery, the executive director of the social conservative group Alaska Family Action. His wife, Kim Hummer-Minnery, was one of the sponsors of the parental notification initiative, along with Costello and former Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman.

Minnery said he ultimately expects a push to pass a constitutional amendment that puts the invalidated parental consent law back into place. But Costello, the state senator, sounded like she was ready to tackle other issues, citing Alaska's massive budget deficit.

"We need to put all of our effort into solving that issue," she said in a phone interview. "In the precious time that we have, we should be focusing on the budget."