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State v. Groppel

Supreme Court of Alaska

November 2, 2018

STATE OF ALASKA, Petitioner and Cross-Respondent,
v.
CONAR L. GROPPEL, Respondent and Cross-Petitioner,
v.
ALASKA COURT SYSTEM, Respondent and Cross-Respondent.

          Certified Question from the Court of Appeals Nos. A-12662/12751 of the State of Alaska, on Petition for Review from the Superior Court No. 4FA-14-01954 CR of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Michael A. MacDonald, Judge.

          Kenneth M. Rosenstein and Patricia Haines, Assistant Attorneys General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Petitioner and Cross-Respondent.

          Brooke Berens, Assistant Public Advocate, and Richard Allen, Public Advocate, Anchorage, for Respondent and Cross-Petitioner.

          Thomas P. Amodio, Reeves Amodio LLC, Anchorage, for Respondent and Cross-Respondent.

          Kelly R. Taylor, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae Alaska Public Defender Agency.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices, and Matthews, Senior Justice.[*]

          Carney, Justice, not participating.

          OPINION

          STOWERS, Chief Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         When a criminal defendant asserts the defense of insanity or diminished capacity or the defendant's mental fitness otherwise is at issue, AS 12.47.070 requires the court to appoint two qualified psychiatrists or two psychologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology to examine the defendant. This case presents the questions whom these experts serve, how they are to be chosen, and who must bear their costs. We answer that these are the court's experts, that Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) must provide them if API employs experts with the qualifications set out by statute, and that if API does not employ such qualified experts, then the superior court must appoint qualified experts and the Alaska Court System must bear their costs.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Conar L. Groppel is charged with first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, first- and second-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief, first-degree burglary, and evidence tampering. Groppel notified the superior court he might rely on the defense of diminished capacity, and pursuant to AS 12.47.070(a) the court was required to appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or board-certified forensic psychologists to examine him and report upon his mental condition.[1] Later Groppel also moved for a competency and culpability examination.

         Groppel was evaluated by Dr. Kristy Becker, a forensic psychologist at API. Although the superior court found Dr. Becker was "substantively qualified to give an opinion in this case," it ruled she was not qualified under AS 12.47.070 because she was not certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology. The court explained it had conferred with API representatives and "confirmed that [API] ha[d] no psychiatrist qualified according to the statute to conduct the examination." The court therefore announced it would appoint two statutorily qualified experts and stated, "It is the court's intention that each party will be entitled to [its] own expert, each party to bear [its] own expert costs and fees."

         The State petitioned the court of appeals for review, arguing the Office of Public Advocacy (OP A)-which represented Groppel - should bear the costs of both experts. Groppel cross-petitioned for review, arguing the Alaska Court System should pay the entire costs of both experts. The State responded, adopting Groppel's argument as an alternative position. The court of appeals then invited the Court System to file a response; the Court System argued the superior court was correct to divide the costs between the State and OPA, but in the alternative OPA should cover the full costs of both experts.[2]

         The court of appeals certified the question to this court, and we granted the certification. On January 24, 2018 we issued an order vacating the superior court's order and remanding with the following instructions:

1. The court shall appoint qualified API psychiatrists or psychologists to perform the required evaluations unless the court finds that no psychiatrists at API are qualified and no forensic psychologists at API are certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, or that there is another legitimate reason why API staff cannot perform the evaluations.
2. If the court finds that there are no qualified psychiatrists and no board-certified forensic psychologists at API, the court shall appoint at least two neutral expert witnesses from outside API. The court may solicit recommendations from the parties when deciding whom to appoint. But the experts shall report to the court and not to the parties, and the scope of the evaluations shall be controlled by the court. The Court System shall pay for these non-API experts pursuant to AS 12.47.070 and in accordance with Alaska Administrative Rule 8.[3]

         We stated that an opinion explaining our order would be published at a later date. This is that opinion.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The interpretation of a statute is a question of law we review de novo.[4]"We construe statutes according to reason, practicality, and common sense, considering the meaning of the statute's language, its legislative history, and its purpose."[5] We use "a sliding scale approach, under which 'the plainer the language of the statute, the more convincing contrary legislative history must be.' "[6]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Alaska Statute 12.47.070 provides for psychiatric or psychological examination of a criminal defendant when the defendant has filed notice of his intent to rely on a defense of insanity or diminished capacity, when "there is reason to doubt the defendant's fitness to proceed," or when "there is reason to believe that a mental disease or defect of the defendant will otherwise become an issue in the case."[7] The statute directs the court to "appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or two forensic psychologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology to examine and report upon the mental condition of the defendant."[8] This opinion clarifies whom these experts serve, how they are to be selected, and who bears their expense.

         A. Experts Appointed Under AS 12.47.070 Are The Court's Experts.

         The superior court apparently viewed the two experts it sought to appoint as being the parties' experts. It stated, "It is the court's intention that each party will be entitled to [its] own expert, each party to bear [its] own expert cost and fees." The court was mistaken. Experts appointed under AS 12.47.070(a) serve as the court's expert witnesses.

         In 1972 the Alaska Legislature codified the defenses of insanity and diminished capacity and provided for psychiatric examination of defendants raising those defenses.[9] The law directed the court to "appoint at least one qualified psychiatrist" or request API's superintendent "to designate at least one qualified psychiatrist ... to examine and report upon the mental condition of the defendant" if there were reason to believe the defendant's mental condition would be at issue.[10] With court permission, a qualified expert retained by the defendant would "be permitted to witness and participate in the examination."[11] The statute required the examination report to be filed with the clerk of the court, who would then distribute copies to the parties.[12]

         The Alaska Legislature has twice amended this statute: first in 1981 in an act primarily concerning involuntary commitment, [13] and again in 1982 to modify the defenses available to defendants claiming mental disease or defect.[14] In 1981 it added the phrase "or a forensic psychologist certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology."[15] The 1982 bill increased the number of qualified experts from one to two, and removed the language referring to the superintendent of API.[16] Neither of these changes altered the character of these examiners as experts for the court.

         1. The history of the 1982 amendments reveals legislative intent to provide non-partisan experts.

         An early House Judiciary Committee draft of the 1982 bill revising the psychiatric examination law called for "at least three" experts, [17] and the final amendment required "at least two."[18] One legislator explained, "[G]etting the benefit of different opinions... [is] the real point here, not that they pick some guy who supposedly is super objective and ...


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