The Alaska Supreme Court said Tuesday it has affirmed a lower court ruling that the board tasked with redrawing the state’s legislative districts “again engaged in unconstitutional political gerrymandering” and ordered the use of a new map for this year’s elections.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews in his ruling last week said it appeared that the majority of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s members had adopted a map splitting the Eagle River area into two Senate districts for “political reasons.”
The map that Matthews ordered the board to adopt in part pairs the Eagle River area House districts into a single Senate district. It was the other option the board had considered when it was weighing revisions following a prior order by the state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed Matthews’ order for the adoption of the map for this year’s elections.
The decision came just a week before the June 1 filing deadline for the August primary and followed a second round of challenges to the board’s work.
Several legislative candidates were waiting for the court’s ruling to determine which constituents they would be seeking to represent.
Cathy Giessel, a Republican former state senator who’s running for office again this year, didn’t know whether the House district she lives in — which includes Girdwood, Whittier and a swath of South Anchorage, Girdwood and Whittier — would be paired with another South Anchorage House district or one in Eagle River.
“It’s a relief to have it finally decided,” Giessel said in a phone interview. “Now I can finally press forward, full speed.”
The Supreme Court earlier this year found constitutional issues with elements of a map drawn by the board last fall. In one instance, the court ruled that a state Senate district pairing part of East Anchorage and the Eagle River area constituted an “unconstitutional political gerrymander.”
The five-member board then returned to work. The revised plan it adopted in a 3-2 vote last month prompted challenges that focused on the board’s decision to link part of the Eagle River area with South Anchorage and Girdwood for a Senate district and another part of the Eagle River area to an area that includes a military base for another Senate district.
Matthews said he found that the board had “intentionally discriminated against the communities of Girdwood and South Anchorage in order to maximize senate representation for Eagle River and the Republican party.”
Attorneys for the board, in asking the Supreme Court to review Matthews’ decision, called his order a “rambling, unprincipled, result-oriented decision” and labeled it “the antithesis of deference to an independent constitutional entity.”
After the Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday, the board held a brief meeting to adopt the map imposed by the decision. One member who opposed the invalidated maps, tribal leader Melanie Bahnke, said she was grateful to the judges for striking down those districts proposed by the board’s majority.
“Superior Court Judge Matthews and to the Supreme Court, I want to thank them for ensuring that justice prevails,” said Bahnke, who was appointed by a now-retired Supreme Court justice, Joel Bolger.
But Bethany Marcum, who was appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, argued that the newly imposed maps would be a “distortion of justice” by pairing more conservative voters in Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s House district in a Senate district with the heavily Democratic downtown Anchorage district.
“It’s ironic that those who’ve given the most to secure our freedoms, our uniformed service members, are having their voice taken away in the August and November elections,” she said. “I do look forward to further guidance from the court, so that hopefully this travesty can be rectified.”
Matthews, in his order last week, said that with the “time pressure” of the candidate filing deadline removed, the board should return to work on adopting a plan for the remainder of the decade.
The Alaska Supreme Court, however, said that provision would stay on hold. Redistricting plans are drawn using information for the census, which is held every 10 years.
Matthew Singer, an attorney for the board, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he read the Supreme Court’s order as directing the board to adopt a specific temporary plan for this year “and that any other action should await further direction.”
Guidance around that stay order could come in a full opinion from the court, he said.
Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed additional reporting.