Politics

Did Alaska’s redistricting board gerrymander state Senate districts to favor Republicans? The state Supreme Court hears the case.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

The Alaska Supreme Court heard final arguments Friday in a combined lawsuit challenging the state’s newly redrawn legislative boundaries, and justices have until April 1 to rule on a case that has implications for the next decade of Alaska politics.

“Sometime between now and April 1, you’ll hear from us,” said Chief Justice Daniel Winfree after four hours of debate.

Anchorage Superior Court judge Thomas Matthews ruled in February that the state’s five-member redistricting board inappropriately drew state Senate districts that favored Republican-leaning Eagle River, diluting the votes of some east Anchorage residents in the process.

The judge, who said there was “evidence of secretive procedures” in the decision-making process, ordered the redistricting board to redraw the map or demonstrate why it couldn’t legally do so.

Instead, the redistricting board petitioned the high court to review the judge’s ruling, which also overturned some House district boundary lines in Southeast Alaska.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the city of Valdez, who challenged the board’s decisions but saw their arguments rejected by Matthews, also petitioned for review. The city of Skagway filed a separate petition, as did several Alaska Native corporations and organizations.

The Supreme Court combined all of the cases to speed them along. Candidates for this fall’s elections must register by June 1, and in many cases, Alaskans do not know which legislative seats they can run for.

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During Friday’s arguments, board chairman John Binkley sat front and center in the fifth-floor courtroom of Boney Courthouse. The board is in charge of redrawing the state’s legislative districts after each U.S. Census to account for changes in population.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting
Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

Its members were picked by prominent political and judicial figures in 2020. Binkley, father of the owners of the Daily News, was appointed to the redistricting board by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage.

Two of the other board members, Budd Simpson and Bethany Marcum, were appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. All three of those board members are Republicans. The remaining two members, political independents Melanie Bahnke and Nicole Borromeo, were appointed by former chief justice Joel Bolger and former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, respectively.

In November, the three Republican members voted to approve the final Senate boundaries despite the vocal objections of Bahnke and Borromeo, who said they open the board to accusations of gerrymandering.

On Friday, attorney Holly Wells made exactly that argument.

“On Nov. 8, the Senate pairings were selected to increase and amplify the vote of Eagle River and create two, rather than one, Republican Senate seats in the state of Alaska,” she said.

Wells, representing three East Anchorage residents, urged the justices to confirm the lower-court decision, saying the redistricting board made decisions in secret and failed to properly address public testimony.

While state law does not require the board to follow public testimony, Wells cited prior Supreme Court rulings and argued that the redistricting board had an obligation to explain why it did not do so.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

Attorney Matt Singer, representing the redistricting board, said that isn’t accurate; the board isn’t an established state agency, and prior editions of the redistricting board have been able to explain their reasoning in superior court, not during the redistricting process itself.

Senior Justice Warren Matthews, one of five justices hearing the case, quarreled with Singer about that point before allowing him to continue.

Singer said the lower-court ruling “usurped the board’s authority” under the state constitution because Judge Matthews ordered it to redraw districts according to “the clear weight of public testimony.”

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

Taken literally, it could encourage partisans to pack public testimony sessions, he has previously said.

“It’s not a workable standard. It’s inconsistent with our constitutional process,” Singer said Friday.

The state of Alaska also raised a cautious objection to the wording of the lower-court decision. In a written argument, Senior Assistant Attorney General Laura Fox said it could create “unintended consequences” if applied beyond the redistricting board. Experts serving as the heads of agencies or on other boards might find their knowledge and experience trumped by public opinion.

“They should not be required to bend to pressure from commenting members of the general public who lack their expert perspective,” she wrote.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

After Wells and Singer spent an hour delivering their points, the Supreme Court listened to the case brought by the city of Skagway, which sought to be placed in the state House district that includes downtown Juneau.

The board had put Skagway in the district that includes Juneau’s residential suburb, the Mendenhall Valley, but February’s lower-court decision overturned the board’s choice.

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Alaska’s constitution requires house districts to be “formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”

Attorney Robin Brena, representing Skagway, said there is a clear economic link between Skagway and downtown Juneau, none between the city and the Mendenhall Valley, and argued that the board ignored public testimony in favor of that link. Instead, he said, the board inappropriately went with the views of board member Simpson, who lives in Juneau.

Singer, defending the board’s decision, said in writing that officials did not ignore that public testimony but “rejected it in favor of a more compact option,” according to testimony provided by Borromeo.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the city of Valdez presented the final arguments of the day. Valdez sued to overturn a House map that places it in a district predominantly within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It prefers to be linked to communities along the Richardson Highway.

The Mat-Su has a similar view and has argued that the inclusion of Valdez results in Mat-Su districts that are overpopulated when compared to those in other parts of the state.

Neither argument was accepted by the lower court, and Singer argued that the high court should not change that position.

An attorney representing Doyon Ltd., the regional Native corporation for Interior Alaska, argued in support of the board’s map. Putting Valdez in the Interior district that stretches along the Richardson Highway would require changing a district that joins many Doyon-represented villages.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

In a related argument, attorney Eva Gardener, counsel for Calista Corp., urged the justices to rule that the boundaries of ANCSA corporations can receive the same treatment as local-government borders when considering redistricting. Prior courts have ruled that legislative boundaries should respect the borders of local governments.

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Speaking Friday, Gardner urged the justices to look at the state seal hanging on the wall behind them.

“There is no hint of Alaska’s Native people in that seal, and that’s just not right,” she said.

James Brooks

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

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