A long-standing child custody case went before the Supreme Court on Thursday, as the justices considered how a law passed by the Legislature last year changes the case.
The case, Angelica Curtis v. Jonathan Chim, is about custody of a child conceived through statutory rape. Curtis was 13 and Chim was 19 when they were in a relationship and the child — whose name is also Jonathan — was conceived in June 2009.
The age of consent in Alaska is 16, and according to state law, a person 17 years old or older is committing sexual abuse of a minor if they have sex with someone who is 13, 14 or 15 and at least four years younger than them.
Both sides presented their arguments Thursday. Curtis (who is now 23) argued that in cases where a child is conceived during a sexual assault, the parental rights of the offender should be terminated. The defense is that parents have equal rights to custody and that a court cannot terminate one parent’s rights without a specific legal reason.
The case is far from simple, though, and brings up questions of whether a Legislature can determine the intent of a past Legislature.
The custody battle has been going for nearly a decade, according to previous reporting from the Empire. Chim currently has custody, and Curtis gets supervised visits, attorneys said in court Thursday.
About a year after Jonathan (who is now 8 years old) was born, Curtis was sent to the McLaughlin Youth Center for rifling cars. Chim, who was sentenced to three years for the statutory rape of Curtis, was still in Lemon Creek Correctional Center at the time, so Curtis’ parents applied for legal guardianship, the Empire reported in 2016.
To get guardianship, Curtis parents (Miles and Tonya) had to notify the biological father, Chim. That began the custody battle that has now made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
“It’s pretty much determined what we’ve had to do with our lives,” Miles Curtis said in a recent phone interview. “We actually had to move, me and my wife. We were basically raising the child, at least for the first six years of his life.”
The Curtis family and Chim’s family currently both live in Petersburg, attorneys said in court Thursday.
During his oral argument Thursday, Chim’s attorney Fred Triem argued that Curtis does not have her child’s best interests at heart. Triem said the relationship was seemingly happy between Chim and Curtis for a while until Curtis abruptly changed her tune.
“Her motive is vindictive,” Triem said. “She decided she’s going to get back at this wrongdoer after years and years of peace and harmony. She’s switched her positions, which is what happened here.”
Curtis argued over the phone at Thursday’s hearing that this is not the case. She said that as she’s gotten older and has learned more, she’s realized that Chim was controlling her at that young age.
“He didn’t rely on brute force in the commission of the crimes or the use of weapons,” Curtis said, “but used drugs and deception and preyed on my youthfulness instead.”
The issue of intent
Anna Jay, an attorney for the state, spoke in front of the Supreme Court on Thursday and gave a brief overview of the Legislature’s recent action.
A law passed by the Legislature in 2018 — Senate Bill 162 — actually didn’t change the law at all, Jay said. It merely is meant to clarify that the original law (Alaska Statute 25.23.180) allows for a parent to petition for the termination of parental rights if the child was conceived as the result of a sexual assault in cases beyond adoption, despite the law only appearing in state statute that deals with adoption. Specifically, it says the parent who committed the sexual assault can be blocked from attempting to later adopt the child.
Jay explained that in 1987, the statute was originally placed in the section of Alaska law that dealt with adoption because there was already an area of the adoption section dealing with the termination of parental rights. Jay said in court Thursday that SB 162 sought “to remove any doubts about the statute’s application to cases like this one.”
The bill, sponsored by former Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, clarifies that this law applies to cases beyond just adoption, Jay explained. Jay said SB 162 states that the 1987 Legislature intended this law to apply more broadly, but only listed in the adoption section because it was more efficient to do so.
The judges asked Jay if a Legislature can determine the intent of a previous Legislature. Jay said that depends on the interpretation of a court, but that there’s case law that backs up that a Legislature can clarify a law passed previously. SB 162 doesn’t make any substantive changes, Jay said, and is only a clarification.
Chief Justice Joel H. Bolger closed Thursday’s hearing saying he thought the arguments were illuminating, especially the background from Jay.
“This case involves important questions of public policy and we appreciate the assistance,” Bolger said. “We will take the matter under advisement and issue a written decision at a later time.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.