Alaska redistricting lawsuit ends, judge to rule by Feb. 15
Alaska’s political borders are now in the hands of an Anchorage Superior Court judge, and the order he writes over Super Bowl weekend could determine control of the State House and the Senate.
On Friday, Judge Thomas Matthews heard closing arguments in a case combining five legal challenges to boundaries set by the Alaska redistricting board last year.
Matthews will rule for or against those challenges by Feb. 15, determining whether or not the redistricting board should redraw its chosen boundaries.
“You’ll have my decision next week, hopefully by 11:59 a.m. Tuesday,” Matthews said.
Lawyers involved in the cases have said his decision will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court by whoever loses, and Matthews himself has said he expects an appeal. While Matthews’ word is not final, it will guide future legal action.
The deadline for a candidate to run in this year’s election is June 1, and many potential candidates said they are awaiting the results of the redistricting process before deciding whether or not to run in this year’s races.
The redistricting board is tasked with the once-a-decade job of redrawing political districts to accommodate population changes. Under the Alaska Constitution, each House District must be “formed of a contiguous and compact territory containing as much as possible a relatively integrated socio-economic area”, and several decisions of the Supreme Court of Alaska provide additional guidance.
In a trial that lasted two weeks, attorneys representing the plaintiffs tried to argue that the five board members had violated state law and the constitution. Although the plaintiffs had different arguments, most criticized the council’s process, accusing council members of acting in executive session and collecting secret information via text and email.
The state senate board map creates two Republican-leaning senate seats in northeast Anchorage by joining part of Eagle River to Muldoon. This decision is the subject of one of the lawsuits, which alleges that the decision was the result of political gerrymandering.
The proposed State House map places Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, in a district whose voters overwhelmingly chose former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. In North Anchorage, Rep. Republican incumbent David Nelson was placed in a district whose voters leaned toward President Joe Biden.
Partisan analysis found that more districts leaned Republican than Democrats or Independents, but the number of Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning districts did not change significantly.
(A new ranked-choice voting system and new campaign finance rules, along with normal campaign uncertainty, mean a district’s leaning doesn’t guarantee victory, political analysts said.)
Four lawsuits allege that specific house districts were improperly drawn.
Due to delays in the 2020 census caused by COVID-19, the redistricting board did not complete its work until November. It meant the legal challenges – which in previous years had been heard for months – were compressed into six weeks of frantic work that ended on Tuesday.
East Anchorage State Senate Trial
The 20 Alaska Senate precincts are each made up of two connected precincts.
The challenge to the council’s Senate map came from three east Anchorage residents who are challenging the council’s decision to join a district of Eagle River House to a district of Muldoon and another district of Eagle River House to a district covering Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Government Hill.
The plaintiffs, represented by attorney Holly Wells, are instead seeking the joining of the two districts of Eagle River.
“This case is really about process more than anything,” Wells said.
She argued that the council held several rounds of public testimony for House districts, but only released its Senate map in the final days of the process, then reached a decision after lengthy discussions behind closed doors. .
Citing information sent by Republican voting consultant Randy Ruedrich to Republican-appointed board members, she accused the board of drawing its map of the Senate to benefit Republican candidates. Council members said otherwise.
Alaska’s constitution only requires Senate districts “to be composed of two contiguous districts whenever possible,” but Wells said joining Eagle River with Muldoon violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Alaska Constitution because she “constitutes a geographic gerrymander (with partisanship and racial undertones) in violation of the Alaska Constitution.
Attorney Matt Singer represents the board and said the plaintiffs’ case was “a myopic attempt to achieve a political result through litigation.”
According to Alaska Supreme Court precedent, every part of Anchorage is as good as any when it comes to social and economic integration, he said, adding that the Muldoon-Eagle River couple had been chosen for rational reasons, including the social and economic ties between Eagle River and JBER.
“We are all Anchorageites under Alaska constitutional law,” he said.
Mat-Su Trial and Valdez State House
The State House district redistricting board map places Valdez in a large House district that stretches west along the Glenn Highway to the suburbs of Palmer and Wasilla.
Valdez sued, arguing that he should be placed in a district extending north along the Richardson Highway. The Borough of Matanuska-Susitna sued on related grounds, saying the inclusion of Valdez contributes to overcrowded House neighborhoods in the Mat-Su.
For trial purposes, the Mat-Su and Valdez cases were combined and they pleaded their case together.
If the 40 districts of Alaska House had an equal share of the state’s population, they would each have 18,335 residents. Various factors, including state constitution requirements, mean that districts vary in population.
Five of the seven most overpopulated districts are in Mat-Su. Attorney Stacey Stone, representing the borough, said this indicated the borough had been treated unfairly.
She said the redistricting board misconsidered the boundaries of regional Alaskan Native societies when defining the boundaries of the House rural districts, which forced the Mat-Su districts to be smaller, overcrowding them.
Doyon Corp. is the regional corporation for Interior Alaska, and all villages in its region now share the same House District. To support his accusations of unfair treatment, Stone referenced text messages between board member Nicole Borromeo and an attorney representing Doyon. Some of these texts took place at the time of a closed session intended to fix the limits of the districts.
Attorney Robin Brena, representing Valdez, said the end result amounts to unlawful preferential treatment “favouring and ameliorating the shareholders of Doyon and Ahtna,” another regional Aboriginal company.
Singer, representing the council, said “the council’s job is to get the best map for the whole state of Alaska, and that requires compromise and sometimes that requires letting some people down.”
During last year’s redistricting process, council members frequently debated how best to manage Valdez, which has a population of about 4,000. If placed in the Interior District, it would overcrowd that district, forcing council members to find another location for many of the Interior villages. If placed in a coastal district, it would also overpopulate it.
“Valdez’s solution,” Singer said negatively, “is to blow half the state’s socio-economic integration.”
Calista Challenges Southwest Alaska
In southwest Alaska, the Calista Regional Native Society sued the redistricting board after its shareholder villages were split among three State House districts. In terms of population, the Calista region contains enough inhabitants for about one and a half “ideal” districts.
Attorney Mike Schechter, representing Calista, said the council had done a poor job of keeping the area socio-economically integrated. In written arguments, he said preserving ANCSA’s other borders, but not Calista’s, represents unequal treatment.
Lee Baxter, representing the council, said local school district boundaries determine the boundaries of some rural southwestern districts and that other boundaries are the product of trade-offs needed to balance population between districts.
“Drawing a three-district Alaska is very easy. Drawing a 40-district Alaska is very difficult,” he said.
Skagway hopes for a connection to downtown Juneau
The southeastern town of Skagway has sued in hopes of forcing the council to draw a new State House district connecting it to downtown Juneau, instead of Juneau’s suburb of the Mendenhall Valley.
The suburb is geographically closer to Skagway, but Brena — who represented Skagway as well as Valdez — argued Skagway had better social and economic ties to downtown Juneau.
Juneau is too big for a single State House district but too small for two full districts, thus requiring some sort of connection.
Singer, returning to his earlier argument that all parts of a borough are equally socially and economically integrated, said linking any part of Juneau to Skagway is legal and it makes geographical sense to use the valley of Mendenhall.
Connecting downtown Juneau to Skagway “would be like taking Girdwood and then using the water from Turnagin Arm, wrapping around Earthquake Park and combining Girdwood with the residents of downtown Anchorage,” a- he declared. “At first glance, this approach is just less compact.”
Arguments to come before the Supreme Court
After Matthews issues his decision on Tuesday, the legal battles over the redistricting will move to the Alaska Supreme Court, which has an April 1 deadline to make a decision.
In an interview this week, Chief Justice Daniel Winfree said the court already had “a tentative timeline for what we need to do if a redistricting appeal is filed.”
In 2012, the court ordered the redistricting board to redraw its map and submit it for further legal review. After the court rejected it again, the council’s map was used on an interim basis for the 2012 election, then was completely redesigned the following year.