Supreme Court rejects Alaska's legislative districts

rmauer@adn.comDecember 28, 2012 

— The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday said the Alaska Redistricting Board violated the Alaska Constitution when it redrew all 60 House and Senate districts for the 2012 election.

The court's 3-2 decision ordered the board to fix the map by the 2014 election. It was the second time the justices said the board had failed to comply with the law. The court ruled in May that even though some new boundaries were flawed, there wasn't enough time to fix them and ordered the August primary and November general election take place using the new districts on an interim basis.

Friday's decision strikes the entire interim plan from the books. It doesn't fault any particular district boundary but said the entire process was flawed because the board began mapping by using federal law and the racial makeup of districts. State constitutional guidelines make no mention of race.

In reaching their decision, the justices affirmed a Superior Court ruling in Fairbanks that the Redistricting Board "did not comply with either the spirit or the letter" of earlier Supreme Court decisions.

The Supreme Court said the board should have followed the blueprint it created for redistricting in a landmark 1992 case brought by then Gov. Wally Hickel. That blueprint "diminishes the potential for partisan gerrymandering and promotes trust in government," the court said. "A redistricting plan that substantially deviates from these constitutional requirements undermines trust in the process."

Until the board comes up with a new set of districts based on the Constitution, the court said, it would be unable to tell whether any one district was improper.

The Redistricting Board, a partisan panel in practice with a 4-1 Republican majority, recast the legislative map in the spring after the 2010 census.

By the time votes were counted in November, Alaska had one-party rule, with both chambers of the Legislature solidly Republican for the first time since 2006, along with Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. Four incumbent Democratic senators lost after they were forced to defend their seats in newly drawn districts where Republicans strongly outnumbered Democrats.

And although the Redistricting Board justified its deviations from the state Constitution to preserve Native voting power in conformance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act, two incumbent Natives lost their races to whites and a white incumbent with strong support in Interior Native villages lost to another white incumbent from Fairbanks.

The chairman of the Redistricting Board, John Torgerson, was out of town and couldn't be reached. The board's attorney, Michael White, said he was studying the decision and wasn't sure how the board would respond.

"It's not the clearest of guidance," White said of the decision. "Once again, the court is concerned only with process."

The board may ask for reconsideration if that option exists, he said. Most of the districts in the plan were not challenged and should have been allowed to stand, he said.

In September, the board "wound down" its staffing as the election approached, announcing its director and assistant director were "moving on."

Fairbanks attorney Michael Walleri, the lawyer for two voters who sued the redistricting board, said the decision affirmed his belief that the districts were flawed, including the unchallenged ones -- and that all are related.

"A boundary for one district is necessarily a boundary for another district," he said. Even if 35 of the 40 House districts comply with the Alaska Constitution, trying to make the last five work is like "painting yourself into a corner," he said. "You've got to draw your initial plan so it complies with the Alaska Constitution first."

Friday's decision was written by Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti. Two other justices, Daniel Winfree and Craig Stowers, supported Carpeneti but would have gone further and required the board to make district-by-district findings that each complied with the Alaska Constitution's mandate for contiguity, compactness and relative socio-economic integration.

"Having twice failed to follow the Hickel process, the Board should be required to making findings allowing appropriate judicial review of its determinations," Winfree and Stowers said.

Two other justices disagreed entirely with Carpeneti, Winfree and Stowers. The dissent, written by retired Justice Warren Matthews and joined by Dana Fabe, said the board's approach "was practical and reasonable." Matthews was brought into the case because of a vacancy that was filled in August with the appointment of Peter Maassen, who did not participate in the decision.

In explaining the "Hickel process," Carpeneti said the districts must first be drawn in conformance with the state constitution. Only then, if some districts are in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act because they dilute Native votes, boundaries can be shifted -- but only minimally.

"The Board claims that it has followed our instructions to use the Hickel process ... and asks us to approve its Amended Proclamation Plan as the final redistricting plan," Carpeneti wrote. "But it is undisputed that the Board began formulating its original proclamation plan by focusing exclusively on race and creating the correct number of effective Native districts."

After the Supreme Court decision was announced, Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said he and Democratic Sen. Hollis French are introducing bills that would do away with a partisan redistricting board entirely and replace it with a nonpartisan commission.

"Parties cheat when they're able to rewrite the lines," with Democrats and Republicans equally guilty, Gara said. "It's a disgusting tradition."


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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