Politics

Citing ‘secretive process,’ judge overturns map of East Anchorage Senate districts but upholds most redistricting work

alaska redistricting board, legislative boundaries, anchorage, alaska, census

An Alaska judge early Wednesday upheld most of the state’s newly redistricted political map but overturned a decision that created two East Anchorage Senate seats linked with Eagle River.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, who heard five legal challenges to the work done last year by the five-member Alaska Redistricting Board, also overturned the boundaries of two state House districts in Southeast Alaska.

In his decision, Matthews said there was evidence indicating the three Republican-appointed members of the redistricting board worked in secret to give Eagle River greater representation in the Senate, illegally diluting the representation of East Anchorage.

“While the court does not make this finding lightly, it does find evidence of secretive procedures evident in the board’s consideration and deliberation of the Anchorage Senate seat pairings,” the judge wrote.

He ordered the board to redraw both the Senate pairings and boundaries of the two Juneau-centered House districts, or offer an explanation as to why it is impossible to do so legally.

Matthews also faulted the board’s handling of public testimony on the House boundaries between Skagway and Juneau, and he said board members failed to properly address testimony from East Anchorage residents.

“I feel this was a really thoughtful decision by the court, and I think it’s a great decision for the East Anchorage plaintiffs,” said attorney Holly Wells, who represented them in court.

ADVERTISEMENT

The redistricting board voted 3-2 later Wednesday to appeal Matthews’ decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The vote fell along the same lines as the original vote on the Senate map: The three Republican-appointed board members voted in favor of an appeal, and the two independent-appointed board members voted against it.

The Republican appointees are Chairman John Binkley (appointed by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage); Bethany Marcum (appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy) and Budd Simpson (appointed by Dunleavy).

“The public portion of the record leads to only one reasonable inference: some sort of coalition or at least a tacit understanding between members Marcum, Simpson, and Binkley,” Matthews said.

He declined to say definitively that there was a secret deal, but “the court does see ample evidence of secretive process at play,” he said.

Matthews noted that public testimony was overwhelmingly against the idea of combining Eagle River and Muldoon, yet the board failed to offer an explanation for its decision, which came soon after a closed-door discussion.

“While each board member is an Alaskan with knowledge about the state and its regions in their own right,” Matthews said, “that fact does not give the board the discretion to make decisions based on personal preference when that preference is directly contrary to the overwhelming majority of public testimony.”

He compared the Anchorage Senate decision to the board’s actions on Valdez, which was placed in a state House seat whose residents mostly come from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Residents of the Mat-Su and Valdez strongly opposed that choice and filed suit over it, but Matthews concluded that the board made a good-faith effort to try other approaches before going against public testimony.

The two board members appointed by independents, Nicole Borromeo (appointed by former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham) and Melanie Bahnke (appointed by former Chief Justice Joel Bolger), had protested the board’s actions on the Anchorage Senate map. Borromeo said in November that the actions of the Republican-appointed members would open “an unfortunate and very easily winnable argument of partisan gerrymandering.”

That prediction proved true with Matthews’ order, which called her words “quite illuminating.”

Concluding his writing, he said, “This court finds that the Board’s refusal to consider and make a good-faith effort to incorporate public feedback relating to the placement of Skagway and the dividing line in Juneau was arbitrary and capricious, and thus unreasonable. The same holds true for the East Anchorage senate pairings.”

All three Republican appointees are registered Republicans, and the two independent-appointed ones are undeclared voters

Asked whether she feels vindicated, Borromeo said Matthews’ verdict wasn’t about her vindication but about getting a right result for Alaskans.

“I would say it was a welcomed ruling on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day,” she said, referring to the day honoring the Alaska Native civil rights activist.

Attorney Matt Singer, hired by the board to defend it in court, said Wednesday that in his view, Matthews’ order creates a “new concept, the notion that public testimony should have a higher role or be more important” than the personal views and experience of board members.

Borromeo, herself an attorney, disagreed with that viewpoint and urged the board members to not appeal and instead adopt alternative maps fixing the problems identified by Matthews. She suggested the action would take “15 minutes,” and would save the state time and money.

But the Republican-appointed board members disagreed.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I think that in both instances, the superior court’s opinion departs from established precedent to the extent that we really owe it to the people of Alaska to take this up to the Supreme Court and get a definitive ruling on the superior court’s judgment,” Simpson said.

Binkley said he agrees with Simpson and said he believes it is “important for the Supreme Court to weigh in on these issues.”

Unless overturned on appeal, the decision is expected to result in an East Anchorage Senate district that’s more of a political tossup, instead of Republican-leaning.

Matthews ruled against legal challenges from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, city of Valdez and Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Southwest Alaska. Each of those plaintiffs had sought changes in the state House map, but Matthews found that the decisions made by the board could be justified by the state constitution, law, or prior legal rulings.

It was not immediately clear on Wednesday whether those plaintiffs will appeal.

Under court rules, the Supreme Court has until April 1 to make a decision. The compressed timeline is necessary because June 1 is the deadline for candidates to register for the 2022 election. Several candidates have previously said they are deferring decisions until after court rulings on redistricting.

(Binkley’s sons and daughter are the owners of the Anchorage Daily News, and Binkley himself does not have a role in the ADN’s operations. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)

James Brooks

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

Sponsored