Haines is now out and Petersburg is back in as the Alaska Supreme Court has reversed itself on redistricting.
A divided Alaska Supreme Court backed off its strident opposition to considering Native political strength in drawing districts, as required by the federal Voting Rights Act.
That means the justices will have the Alaska Redistricting board go back to an earlier map, one which groups Juneau’s downtown and Douglas with Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Gustavus and Skagway in one district, currently represented by Democrat Beth Kerttula. Republican Cathy Munoz represents the other Juneau district which includes the Mendenhall Valley and Auke Bay.
“I’m sure people feel like a ping-pong ball at this point,” Kerttula said.
The justices’ decision is particularly good news for Munoz, and Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, who would have had to face each other in the Republican primary had the district boundaries stood.
A relieved Munoz praised the court’s decision, saying it was the only way to make sure this year’s elections could go forward smoothly.
“They made a wise call, everything was in turmoil because of the timing,” she said.
The court’s decision Tuesday allows the 2012 election to go forward, with some certainty, but district boundaries may change after that.
Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott also praised the decision. The northern Lynn Canal community had feared that its issues would be lost among the concerns of much-larger Juneau, and that Native voters would lose clout.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, is one of two Native legislators from Southeast. The other is Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.
Haines had made what some considered a long-shot appeal of the earlier plan to pair up Haines with Juneau in a district.
Scott said she heard complaints that they were making a “frivolous” appeal, but said Tuesday’s ruling vindicated them.
“I guess we weren’t,” she said.
The Court’s order Tuesday means the Redistricting Board will go back to Southeast maps that had been adopted April 5, and which were drawn to create an election district in Southeast that with have a strong Native presence, though not a majority.
That’s done by grouping several heavily Native communities together, and puts Munoz and Thomas in different districts.
The Supreme Court’s action Tuesday also puts Petersburg in the same district as downtown Juneau, something that the Petersburg community had vigorously opposed. Petersburg said the Redistricting Board should combine it with the more similar communities of Sitka and Wrangell, which rely on fishing, instead of government and tourism-heavy Juneau.
The earlier plan to link Juneau and Petersburg has already received pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act from the Department of Justice, a key hurdle in getting final approval for new districts.
The Supreme Court maintained in its Tuesday ruling that the district maps it approved in a surprise action last week complied with the requirements of the Alaska Constitution, but acknowledged that they’d have some difficulty complying with the Voting Rights Act.
Native groups, including the Central Council of Tlingit-Haida Indians of Alaska, Alaska Native Brotherhood, Alaska Federation of Natives and Sealaska Corp., had joined the cities of Haines and Metlakatla in challenging the districts ordered drawn by the Alaska Supreme Court that disregarded the option of creating a district with a concentrated Native presence.
“There is a risk that the United States Department of Justice would decline to pre-clear them under the Voting Rights Act,” the court acknowledged.
If the maps were overturned, it could make it difficult to hold this year’s elections in an organized manner. Elections officials had said they needed to have districts set by May 14, and the filing deadline is June 1.
Using election districts that may be overturned risks “great disruption to the election process,” the court’s Tuesday order said.
Haines’ Scott said it might be the “chaos argument” that the justices found most persuasive, and did not want to cause turmoil or throw the election in doubt.
“Everything was in flux, everything was in turmoil,” Munoz said. “Ultimately, it could have affected the election.”
While the current plan separated two incumbents in northern Southeast, it places Reps. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell and Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan in the same district.
The Senate parings don’t change, with Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, remaining the only legislator who won’t have to run for re-election this year and Sens. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, facing each other.
Voting in favor of the decision Tuesday were Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti and Justice Dana Fabe, while Justices Dan Winfree and Craig Stowers dissented, preferring the May 15 plan.
Also participating in the decision was Senior Judge Warren Matthews, providing the court’s fifth member following the appointment of former Justice Morgan Christen to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was the third vote in the 3-2 majority.
Kerttula said she’s happy to represent whatever communities she’s given.
“I’m happy to serve wherever the district lines fall, I’ll work my hardest to represent whoever is there,” Kerttula said.
Munoz, too, said the Southeast delegation would continue to work together for the region, regardless of district boundaries.
“It’s really important that was a region we work together, both the larger population centers and the smaller communities, we’re much stronger when we work together.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org