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Rae v. State, Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Alaska

October 27, 2017


         Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Seward, Carl Bauman, Judge. Superior Court No. 3 SW-15-00003 CI

          Appearances Michael Lee Rae, pro se, Anchorage, Appellant.

          Matthias Cicotte, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]




         A prisoner filed a complaint against the Department of Corrections alleging that he was held illegally and demanding his release. The superior court dismissed the complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The prisoner appeals. Because we agree that the complaint failed to state a cognizable claim, we affirm the dismissal.


         Michael Rae is a prisoner in the custody of Alaska's Department of Corrections (DOC). In January 2015 he filed a complaint (labeled a "petition") in the superior court alleging that DOC lacked the constitutional authority to hold him. In an attached motion for expedited consideration he asserted that he had been "subjected to numerous forms of cruel and unusual punishments" including solitary confinement and impediments to his ability to conduct legal research.

         In June 2015 the superior court sua sponte dismissed the complaint with prejudice because Rae failed to "advance any cognizable or discernable claim." Rae filed both a motion for reconsideration and a notice of his intent to seek a default, following up with a 75-page application for a default judgment. The superior court denied reconsideration, concluding that "Rae's main point of contention is that [DOC] has no legal authority to hold him or exist at all" and that the "argument is without merit and the relief sought is not available to Rae."

         Rae appeals.


         "We review a motion to dismiss de novo, construing the complaint liberally and accepting as true all factual allegations."[1] We "exercise our independent judgment in interpreting court rules, "[2] and we review questions of constitutional law and statutory interpretation de novo.[3] But we "review the adequacy of the superior court's assistance to a pro se litigant for abuse of discretion."[4]


         A. The Superior Court Did Not Err When It Dismissed Rae's Complaint For Failure To State A Claim.

         A "complaint should not be dismissed 'unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim' that would entitle him to some form of relief, even if the plaintiff requests a type of relief he is not entitled to obtain."[5] This stringent standard for dismissal was met in this case.

         Rae's complaint posed five "question[s] of law." First, Rae asked whether DOC is covered by the Alaska Administrative Procedure Act, to which he provided the answer: "No." Second, he asked the court to clarify whether DOC's creation by executive order was constitutional. Third, he asked whether DOC's creation by executive order violated the separation of powers doctrine, to which he answered "yes." Fourth, Rae asserted that all the laws and regulations authorizing DOC's custody over him were "ex post facto." His last question appears to be an amalgam of the first four: He concludes that his detention by DOC violates the constitution, the separation of powers doctrine, and generally "the rights provided by 'we' the people." The answers to none of these "questions of law" depended on the resolution of disputed issues of fact. And the superior court could, and did, properly determine that the answers to them would not provide Rae the relief he wanted: his immediate release from DOC custody.

         Rae argues on appeal that AS 33.30.051 and other statutory provisions regarding prisoners in DOC custody are unconstitutional "ex post facto" laws.[6] This argument fails for at least two reasons. First, the statutes Rae cites do not define any criminal conduct, [7] and second, they were enacted well before Rae committed the offenses for which he was imprisoned.[8] Rae also relies on AS 09.50.310, allowing the attorney general to bring an action against a person or persons for unlawfully usurping a public office. But the statute cannot reasonably be construed to authorize a suit against the existence of an entire state agency; besides, it does not purport to grant a private cause of action.

         We find no merit in any of Rae's other arguments questioning the validity of DOC's existence. Rae cites the fact that DOC is not covered by the Alaska Administrative Procedures Act, but he does not explain why having different procedural rules makes DOC an illegal entity.[9] He points to the criminal-administration provisions of the Territorial Organic Act and Statehood Act and claims that they preclude later changes in the law like the creation of DOC, and he argues that article I, section 12 of the Alaska Constitution lays out a specific plan for "criminal administration" that also conflicts with DOC s creation. But article I, section 12 provides broad goals for criminal administration; it does not ...

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