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Justices' dissent highlights dispute over redistricting

Posted: June 24, 2012 - 11:02pm

Two justices on the five-member Alaska Supreme Court are saying the court blew it when it adopted its new electoral district maps for Southeast Alaska, and are criticizing their colleagues’ decision making process as well.

Justice Daniel Winfree, joined by Justice Craig Stowers, this week released a written dissent to the court’s decision changing which maps would be used in this year’s election. The court returned on May 22 to the original April 5 map that included Petersburg in with Juneau, instead of the May 10 map that included Haines with Juneau and which would have placed two incumbent Republicans, Reps. Cathy Muñoz of Juneau and Bill Thomas of Haines in the same district.

“It is now beyond doubt that the April 5 plan violates the Alaska Constitution, at least with respect to Southeast Alaska,” the two justices wrote in a dissent released this week to the court’s surprise decision

On the prevailing side in that decision were Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti, Justice Dana Fabe and Senior Justice Warren Matthews filling a vacancy on the court.

The dispute stems over which should take precedence in drafting new election districts, the Alaska Constitution or the federal Voting Rights Act. The conflict was between the Alaska Constitution’s requirement that districts be compact and contiguous and the Voting Rights Act requirement to maintain Native voting strength.

Winfree and Stowers said where the court erred was in trying to create a “Native influence” district in Southeast with a minimum percentage of Native voters.

If there’s no ability to create an “effective Native” district that is likely to elect a Native legislator, there’s no obligation to attempt to create an influence district, they said.

Sealaska Corp., the Southeast Regional Native corporation, argued to the court that reducing the influence district’s ability and likelihood that a Native candidate would be elected was exactly the kind of reduction in Native voting power the act was intended to prohibit.

The corporation failed to back that argument up, the justices said.

“Sealaska submitted nothing to us but argument to support its position,” the justices wrote.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Redistricting Board’s Voting Rights Act expert, Lisa Handley, testified that the federal Department of Justice no longer considered influence districts valuable and would not object to Alaska losing one.

The dissenting justices also criticized the court for reversing itself within two weeks, without any new evidence.

“I wish to emphasize that the court’s reversal was not based on a single new fact or piece of evidence — nothing changed between the court’s May 10 order and its May 22 order,” Winfree wrote.

The dissenters said that was in error.

“There is no justification for deviating from Alaska constitutional requirements in Southeast Alaska,” they said.

The Native American Rights Fund is continuing to challenge Alaska’s redistricting process, but is not focusing on the Southeast aspects.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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