The Alaska Supreme Court overruled a Superior Court’s resolution of Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. Stavenjord v. Schmidt. The case started back in 2001. The matter had been fully briefed by both parties, first on the motion for preliminary injunction and then again in cross motions for summary judgment. The Superior Court denied Stavenjord’s motion and granted the State’s motion. On appeal the Supreme court overturned the matter and sent it back to the trial court for further development.
Summary judgment motions are granted or denied based upon viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Accordingly, in cross motions for summary judgment the court doesn’t evaluate the merits of the evidence offered by the parties and make a ruling. Instead the court must look at each motion in a vacuum and view the facts against the movant. A typical result will be both sides simply lose their motions and the matter proceeds to trial on the factual issues. Where, as here, the court grants someone judgment, the appellate court reviews the opinion without deference to the trial court’s decision.
There is an alternative to ruling on motions in this fashion. The parties could stipulate to the facts in the written record and allow the court to pass judgment on the merits.. The court itself could invite the parties to stipulate to the facts in the record and allow judgment on the evidence on one or all of the issues presented. See, TRIAL ON THE PAPERS: AN ALTERNATIVE TO CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, by MORTON DENLOW (1998).
While Denlow discusses federal court procedures they are as applicable to Alaska courts. Alaska Rules 52 and 58 allow the court to resolve a matter based on the record prepared. Such a procedure in this case could have saved years of legal procedure in this case. The cost to the parties and the community for all of the legal time spent considering these issues has been and will continue to be considerable.
Stavenjord is serving time for a double homicide and was previously a bank robber. He’s litigating with the state over his desire for religious privilege in prison. The courts have interpreted a prisoner’s religious beliefs to only require the prisoner’s sincere yet personal belief. They have not required the belief to have been adopted by any formal or recognized religious group. When you expand the personal religious privilege to include food selection, public costs can escalate quickly. The cost for special meals in at least one example was four times more expensive. The prison population’s response to a prisoner’s win was mass adoption of the new religious diet. There is nothing to stop a prison from experiencing a mass adoption of individualized religious diet requirements.
Strategic use of court procedure can reduce the cost and time to resolution.