Alaska redistricting trial concludes, with judge required to rule by Feb. 15

Alaska’s political boundaries are now in the hands of an Anchorage Superior Court judge, and the order he writes over the weekend could determine control of the state House and Senate.

On Friday, Judge Thomas Matthews heard closing arguments in a case that combined five legal challenges to the boundaries set by Alaska’s redistricting board last year.

Matthews will rule for or against those challenges by Feb. 15, determining whether or not the redistricting board must redraw its chosen boundaries.

“You’ll get my decision next week, hopefully before 11:59 on Tuesday,” Matthews said.

Attorneys involved in the cases said his ruling will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court by whoever loses, and Matthews himself has said to expect an appeal. Though Matthews’ word will not be the final one, it will guide future legal action.

The deadline for a candidate to enter this year’s election is June 1, and many potential candidates have said they’re waiting for the results of the redistricting process before they decide whether or not to enter this year’s races.

The redistricting board is in charge of the once-per-decade job of redrawing political districts to account for changes in population. Under the Alaska Constitution, each House district must be “formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area,” and several Alaska Supreme Court rulings provide additional guidance.


In a trial that lasted two weeks, attorneys representing the plaintiffs attempted to argue that the board’s five members violated state law and the constitution. Though the plaintiffs had different arguments, most criticized the board’s process, accusing board members of taking action in executive session and collecting secret information by text message and email.

The board’s map for the state Senate creates two Republican-leaning Senate seats in northeast Anchorage by joining a portion of Eagle River to Muldoon. That 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 puts Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, into a district whose voters overwhelmingly picked former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. In north Anchorage, Republican incumbent Rep. David Nelson has been put into a district whose voters leaned toward President Joe Biden.

More districts lean Republican than Democratic or independent, according to a partisan analysis, but the number of Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning districts didn’t change significantly.

(A new ranked-choice election system and new campaign finance rules, plus the normal uncertainty of campaigns, mean a district’s leaning doesn’t guarantee victory, political analysts have said.)

Four lawsuits allege specific House districts were drawn incorrectly.

Because of delays in the 2020 census caused by COVID-19, the redistricting board didn’t finish its work until November. That meant the legal challenges — which in prior years had been heard over months — were compressed into six weeks of frenetic work that concluded Tuesday.

East Anchorage state Senate lawsuit

Alaska’s 20 Senate districts are each made up of two connected House districts.

The challenge to the board’s Senate map came from three residents of East Anchorage who dispute the board’s decision to join an Eagle River House district with a district in Muldoon, and another Eagle River House district to one covering Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Government Hill.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorney Holly Wells, are asking for the two Eagle River districts to be joined instead.

“This case is really one of process more than anything,” Wells said.

She argued that the board held multiple rounds of public testimony for House districts but didn’t unveil its Senate map until the last days of the process, then made a decision after extensive closed-door discussions.

Citing information sent from Republican voting consultant Randy Ruedrich to Republican-appointed board members, she accused the board of drawing its Senate map to benefit Republican candidates. Board members have said otherwise.

Alaska’s constitution requires only that Senate districts “be composed as near as practicable of two contiguous house districts,” but Wells said joining Eagle River with Muldoon violates the equal-protection clause of the Alaska Constitution because it “constitutes a geographic gerrymander (with partisan and racial undertones) in violation of the Alaska Constitution.”

Attorney Matt Singer is representing the board and said the plaintiffs’ case is “a myopic attempt to secure a political outcome through litigation.”

Under prior Alaska Supreme Court precedent, each part of Anchorage is as good as any other when it comes to social and economic integration, he said, adding that Muldoon-Eagle River pairing was chosen for rational reasons, including social and economic ties between Eagle River and JBER.

“We are all Anchorageites under Alaska’s constitutional law,” he said.


Mat-Su and Valdez state House lawsuit

The redistricting board’s map of state House districts puts Valdez into a broad House district that stretches west along the Glenn Highway to the suburbs of Palmer and Wasilla.

Valdez sued, arguing that it should be placed into a district stretching north, along the Richardson Highway. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough sued on related grounds, saying that the inclusion of Valdez contributes to overpopulated House districts in the Mat-Su.

For trial purposes, the Mat-Su and Valdez cases were combined, and they argued their case together.

If all 40 of Alaska’s House districts had an equal share of the state’s population, they’d each have 18,335 residents. Various factors, including the requirements of the state constitution, mean that districts vary in population.

Five of the seven most overpopulated districts are in Mat-Su. Attorney Stacey Stone, representing the borough, said that indicates the borough was treated unfairly.

She said the redistricting board improperly considered the boundaries of regional Alaska Native corporations when setting the boundaries of rural House districts, which forced Mat-Su districts to be smaller, overpopulating them.

Doyon Corp. is the regional corporation for Interior Alaska, and all of the villages in its region now share the same House district. To back her accusations of unfair treatment, Stone referenced text messages between board member Nicole Borromeo and an attorney representing Doyon. Some of those texts took place around the time of a closed-door session intended to set district boundaries.

Attorney Robin Brena, representing Valdez, said the final result amounts to illegal preferential treatment “favoring and enhancing the shareholders for Doyon and Ahtna,” another regional Native corporation.


Singer, representing the board, said the “board’s job is to get the best map for the whole state of Alaska, and that requires tradeoffs and that sometimes requires disappointing some people.”

During last year’s redistricting process, board members frequently debated the best way to handle Valdez, which has about 4,000 residents. If placed in the Interior district, it would overpopulate that district, forcing board members to find another place for many Interior villages. If put into a coastal district, it would overpopulate that as well.

“Valdez’s solution,” Singer said negatively, “is to blow up half the state’s socio-economic integration.”

Calista raises a challenge in Southwest Alaska

In Southwest Alaska, regional Native corporation Calista sued the redistricting board after its shareholder villages were split among three state House districts. By population, the Calista region contains enough people for about one and a half “ideal” districts.

Attorney Mike Schechter, representing Calista, said the board did a poor job keeping the region socioeconomically integrated. In written arguments, he said the preservation of other ANCSA boundaries, but not Calista’s, represents unequal treatment.

Lee Baxter, representing the board, said local school district boundaries determined the boundaries of some rural southwest districts, and that other boundaries were the product of necessary tradeoffs to balance population between districts.

“Drawing a three-district Alaska is very easy. Drawing a 40-district Alaska is very hard,” he said.

Skagway hopes for a link to downtown Juneau

The Southeast town of Skagway filed suit in hopes of forcing the board to draw a new state House district linking it with downtown Juneau, instead of Juneau’s suburb, the Mendenhall Valley.

The suburb is geographically closer to Skagway, but Brena — who represented Skagway as well as Valdez — argued that Skagway has better social and economic ties to downtown Juneau.

Juneau is too large for a single state House district but too small for two complete districts, thus requiring some kind of link.

Singer, returning to his prior argument that all parts of a borough are equally socially and economically integrated, said linking any part of Juneau with Skagway is legal, and it makes geographic sense to use the Mendenhall Valley.

Linking downtown Juneau to Skagway “would be like taking Girdwood and then using the water of Turnagain Arm, wrapping around Earthquake Park, and combining Girdwood with residents of downtown Anchorage,” he said. “On its face, that approach is just less compact.”


State Supreme Court arguments to come

After Matthews releases his decision on Tuesday, the legal battles over redistricting will move to the Alaska Supreme Court, which has an April 1 deadline to reach a decision.

In an interview this week, Chief Justice Daniel Winfree said the court already has “a tentative calendar set for what we need to do if a redistricting appeal comes up.”

In 2012, the court ordered the redistricting board to redraw its map and submit it for further legal review. After the court again rejected it, the board’s map was used on an interim basis for the 2012 election, then was completely redrawn the following year.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.