Politics

Alaska Supreme Court finds Anchorage state Senate map is ‘unconstitutional political gerrymander’

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that a new map of state Senate districts in Anchorage “constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution” and must be redrawn before its use in this year’s statewide election.

In a combined summary decision, the court said it is upholding a lower court ruling that instructed the state’s five-person redistricting board to redraw the Senate map or explain why it is impossible to do so.

Alaska’s 20 Senate districts are each made of two House districts, and the board is in charge of redrawing their boundaries after every U.S. census to account for changes in population. In November, the board linked each of Eagle River’s House districts with districts elsewhere in Anchorage. This resulted in two Republican-leaning Senate seats and accusations of political gerrymandering by the three Republican-appointed members of the redistricting board.

Some East Anchorage residents sued, saying the map illegally diluted their votes. A lower-court judge agreed, but the board asked the high court to review that decision.

“I do think this is a historic moment because we have not had a partisan gerrymandering, equal protection claim succeed in a redistricting case in Alaska,” said attorney Holly Wells, who represented the East Anchorage residents.

The result could be a strongly Republican Eagle River Senate seat and a tossup seat in East Anchorage, but there also could be ripple effects in the Senate districts elsewhere in Anchorage, depending on the board’s actions.

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and leader of Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, supported the lawsuit and said she was “really pleased” with the outcome. She said she is looking for the board to make “a quick, simple remedy, and we’re off to the races. Let’s go! We’ve got elections in June.”

The deadline for legislative candidates to file for office is June 1, and without final boundaries, candidates cannot know which districts they live in and may represent.

The high-court decision upheld all but one part of the redistricting board’s map of House districts. That lone exception is the “Cantwell appendage,” a peninsula-like arm that puts the Interior community of Cantwell in a vast rural House district instead of the Parks Highway district that surrounds it. The court instructed that the peninsula be erased and Cantwell be placed with its neighbors.

The justices overturned a lower-court ruling that found flaws with the boundaries of the state House districts covering Juneau and northern Southeast Alaska, preserving the lines drawn by the redistricting board.

Alaska Supreme Court, redistricting

Peter Torkelson, the redistricting board’s executive director and chief administrator, said by email, “The board is pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with the board on 39 of Alaska’s 40 house districts and 19 of 20 Senate districts. This is the most favorable decision for any Redistricting Board in recent decades. The board will meet in the near future to discuss today’s decision.”

The justices’ decision represented only a summary and said that a longer explanation will be published at a later date.

In February, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews said there was evidence indicating that redistricting board members Budd Simpson and Bethany Marcum (appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy) worked in secret with board chairman John Binkley (appointed by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage) to give Eagle River greater representation in the Senate.

After a monthslong public process that drew the lines for state House districts, the board took only four days to determine the boundaries of the Senate districts, and much of that time was spent in closed-door sessions.

Board members Melanie Bahnke (appointed by former Chief Justice Joel Bolger) and Nicole Borromeo (appointed by former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham), were outraged by the process and said it opened the board to accusations of gerrymandering.

In written filings to the Supreme Court, the Alaska Black Caucus, NAACP Anchorage, Korean-American Community of Anchorage Inc., Native Movement and First Alaskans Institute said there were racial impacts.

“Two sets of diverse Anchorage neighborhoods have been joined with significantly whiter, more affluent and more conservative neighborhoods to the north,” they wrote, saying that such treatment violated the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution.

Wells did not raise the racial question in oral arguments, and the high court’s ruling does not address those issues, but the justices did find that the Senate map was a violation of the equal protection clause because it did not provide “fair and effective representation — the right to group effectiveness or an equally powerful vote.”

The lower court, and now the high court, have said that gerrymandering did take place and it violated the rules for equal protection.

“Oh happy day!” Bahnke said on social media. “Just say no to gerrymandering!”

James Brooks

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

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