Judge discards challenges to Alaska redistricting plan

Richard Mauer

A Fairbanks judge on Monday tossed out two challenges to the Alaska Redistricting Board's latest legislative map, ruling that the 2014 election can go ahead with its 60 new House and Senate districts.

Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy said in a lengthy opinion that the board didn't have to produce the best possible division of the state -- it only had to produce districts that were reasonable and that complied with the Alaska Constitution.

In his 74-page ruling, McConahy rejected challenges by two Fairbanks-area voters and the Alaska Democratic Party, who said they had better plans. They argued that the board, which is 4-1 Republican, had produced a map that favored Republican legislative candidates.

McConahy said he found no evidence of Gerrymandering -- oddly shaped districts drawn to favor one party over another. He found no need to go ahead with a trial that had been scheduled for next month because the challenges were mainly over matters of law, not fact.

State Democratic Party officials said they were reviewing the decision before deciding whether to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. Fairbanks attorney Mike Walleri said he hadn't yet consulted with this two clients, George Riley of Ester and Ron Dearborn of Goldstream, and couldn't say whether they would ask him to appeal.

In his decision, McConahy also rejected a challenge to a board decision that the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate, majority leader John Coghill, could keep his seat until 2016, not 2014 as the board's initial policy would require. The board made that decision at a meeting in July after former Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich interrupted with an offer to provide "clarity" to board members.

Alaska Senate terms are normally four years, but when redistricting removes or adds a "substantial" number of constituents, the board can declare the term "truncated" to only two years.

In 2012, during its first effort at redistricting based on the 2010 census, the board ruled that all but one of the 20 Senate districts had substantially changed. The board said that nine senators who would have been in the middle of four-year terms would have to stand for election after only two, in 2012.

That year, under interim districts set by the board, 19 senators faced voters when normally only 10 do. Enough Democrats and moderate Republicans were tossed out to ensure the bipartisan coalition that had ruled the Senate for four years was dissolved, enabling one-party Republican rule in Juneau.

McConahy said there was no firm standard for the number of lost or gained constituents to be "substantial." The board decided on 15 percent in 2012.

Had it continued that standard, Coghill, with a 23 percent change in constituents, would have had to face voters in 2014. Instead, after the "clarity" interruption by Ruedrich and a 15-minute recess, the board changed the standard to 25 percent, McConahy noted.

"In making this decision, the Riley plaintiffs claim the Board clearly intended to affect only one district: i.e. Senate District B, which is the new North Pole/Ester district of which Republican Senator Coghill is the incumbent." McConahy wrote. "The Riley plaintiffs state that going off the record to confer with the former head of the Republican Party as to which incumbent Senators should have to stand for election clearly violates that (Open Meetings) act ... The Riley plaintiffs argue that the court should consider the rather brazen and unusual involvement of Mr. Ruedrich interrupting the Board proceedings, and (the) Board taking a break to get 'educated' by him off the record as not only a violation of the (open meetings act), but also as an inference that the Board selected the 25 percent for an improper political reason."

But McConahy said the plaintiffs didn't prove a violation of the law, only inferred it. They could have taken depositions from Ruedrich and board members, but didn't, he said.


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