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State v. Schmidt

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 25, 2014

STATE OF ALASKA and MUNICIPALITY OF ANCHORAGE, Appellants,
v.
JULIE A. SCHMIDT, GAYLE SCHUH, JULIE M. VOLLICK, SUSAN L. BERNARD, FRED W. TRABER, and LAURENCE SNIDER, Appellees

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Frank A. Pfiffner, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-10-09519 CI.

Kevin M. Saxby and Lance B. Nelson, Senior Assistant Attorneys General, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellant State of Alaska.

Pamela D. Weiss, Assistant Municipal Attorney, and Dennis A. Wheeler, Municipal Attorney, Anchorage, for Appellant Municipality of Anchorage.

David Oesting and Roger Leishman, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Anchorage, and Thomas Stenson and Leslie Cooper, ACLU of Alaska Foundation, Anchorage, for Appellees.

Before: Fabe*, Chief Justice, Winfree*, Stowers*, and Maassen, Justices, and Eastaugh*, Senior Justice.[*] [Carpeneti, Justice, not participating.]. WINFREE, Justice, concurring.

OPINION

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EASTAUGH, Senior Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage exempt from municipal property taxation $150,000 of the assessed value of the residence of an owner who is a senior citizen or disabled veteran. But the full value of the exemption is potentially unavailable if a person who is not the owner's spouse also occupies the residence. Contending that the exemption program violates their rights to equal protection and equal opportunities, three Anchorage same-sex couples in committed, long-term, intimate relationships sued the State and the Municipality. The superior court ruled for all three couples. The State and Municipality appeal.

As to two of the couples, we affirm. Same-sex couples, who may not marry or have their marriages recognized in Alaska, cannot benefit or become eligible to benefit from the exemption program to the same extent as heterosexual couples, who are married or may marry. The exemption program therefore potentially treats same-sex couples less favorably than it treats opposite-sex couples even though the two classes are similarly situated. The identified governmental interests do not satisfy even minimum scrutiny. The exemption program therefore violates the two couples' equal protection rights as guaranteed by article I, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution.

As to the third couple, we reverse the ruling in their favor because we conclude that the program does not exempt a residence from taxation unless the senior citizen or veteran has some ownership interest in it. If the senior citizen or veteran has no actual ownership interest, the program treats a same-sex couple the same as a heterosexual couple by denying the exemption to both couples, rendering marital status and the ability to marry irrelevant. Because the senior ...


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