Court tells Redistricting Board to start from scratch

rmauer@adn.comApril 26, 2013 

— The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed this week that the Alaska Redistricting Board must start from scratch and redraw the state's 40 legislative districts in a way that conforms to the state constitution.

In an order issued Wednesday, the court said that the board's failure in 2012 to create districts that met constitutional requirements means its entire plan is flawed, even districts that weren't challenged. The Supreme Court allowed the 2012 election to be conducted under the flawed plan, but only because there wasn't time to fix it.

The board hasn't met since mid-March and its only staff is an administrative assistant. Its chairman said earlier this week that the board would not resume work until after the U.S. Supreme Court decides a challenge by an Alabama county to the U.S. Voting Rights Act, expected in late June.

Jason Gazewood, the Fairbanks attorney who sued the Redistricting Board on behalf of two voters for violating the Alaska Constitution, said he was concerned the board wouldn't get its work done in time for the 2014 election.

Last month, the board asked the Supreme Court to clarify its ruling that tossed the board's map. The board asked the court whether it needed to draw all new districts, even districts that met constitutional guidelines. And, it asked, if it had to redraw all 40 House districts, would it be proper to use some of the 2012 boundaries if they happened to still work in a new plan?

It its order Wednesday, the court said "yes" on both counts but indicated the board needed to provide a new constitutional justification if it used the original boundaries.

"The first step in the redistricting process is to construct districts that comply with the requirements of the Alaska Constitution," the court wrote in its order. A district that is the same or similar to the 2012 district "will not in and of itself preclude the new district from being approved."

The court declined to respond to points raised by Gazewood in his own filing -- whether another round of public hearings would be needed for the new plan and whether the board was allowing sufficient time to enable a voter to challenge the next plan in court. The justices said Gazewood should bring those concerns to Superior Court in Fairbanks, where his challenge was brought in the first place.

Gazewood said Friday he hadn't decided how he would proceed.

The state constitution requires new House districts to be redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts identified in the U.S. Census and to ensure, as much as possible, that each district has the same population. The constitution requires districts to be contiguous and compact and to contain a "relatively integrated socio-economic area." Two adjacent House districts make up a Senate district.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act imposes other standards to preserve the power of Native votes in some rural areas. The Alaska Supreme Court says the federal law must be applied after the boundaries are set under state law and adjusted if necessary -- not the other way around, as the Redistricting Board did.

Gazewood said it doesn't make sense for the board to await a decision in the Voting Rights Act case before drafting a new plan. Regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., he said, the board will have to first draw up 40 districts that conform to the Alaska Constitution.

"If there's a state constitutional issue and nobody has a chance to look at it and assess it appropriately, we're going to be in the same position where we were before, which is the potential of having an interim plan in 2014, when this should've been done a long time ago," Gazewood said.

Board chairman John Torgerson did not respond to a message left on his work phone or to an email sent to his work address.

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

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