JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday over a plan to redraw the state’s political boundaries.
The decision could send ripple effects through the state heading into an election year.
Last month, Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy ruled that the Alaska Redistricting Board redraw three Fairbanks-area House districts and another in the Aleutian chain. McConahy determined that House Districts 1, 2, 37 and 38 are unconstitutional as drawn. House Districts 1, 2 and 38 are in the Fairbanks area, with 1 and 2 urban districts and 38 parts urban and rural, stretching from Fairbanks 400 miles west to the Bering Sea. House District 37 splits the Aleutian chain.
Both the board and plaintiffs, Fairbanks-area residents George Riley and Ron Dearborn, made partial appeals, with the board challenging McConahy’s decision on House Districts 37 and 38, and the plaintiffs arguing, among other things, that McConahy erred in not invalidating the entire plan. (Riley and Dearborn are University of Alaska system retirees.)
McConahy, in his order, also suggested the high court might review the board’s handling of House District 32 in southeast Alaska. McConahy had earlier ruled against Petersburg, which claimed that the district is not compact under the state constitution. Compactness relates to a district’s shape, and compact districting is not to yield weird designs, according to court records.
Though Petersburg did not appeal his decision, McConahy wrote that the supreme court, if it examines the issue, may come to a different conclusion than he did.
In his order, McConahy found House Districts 1 and 2 are not compact, and that no Voting Rights Act justification had been offered for deviating from that constitutional requirement in District 2. He said House District 37 violated constitutional requirements for compactness and contiguity. House District 38 violated the constitutional requirement of socio-economic integration, he ruled.
The Aleutians East and Fairbanks North Star boroughs; a consortium that includes Alaska Native corporations; and the Association of Village Council Presidents and Calista Corp. have filed friend of the court briefs. The Fairbanks North Star Borough last year dropped its challenge to the plan, citing legal costs.
The redistricting board spent months devising a plan and drawing new lines based on 2010 Census results. It needed at least nine districts in which a Native or Native-backed candidate was likely to be elected to maintain the seats held by those candidates after the 2000 redistricting. Under the federal voting rights law, the plan cannot weaken the Alaska Native community’s ability to elect candidates of their choosing.
The plan won preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department last fall.
The board has acknowledged that its greatest challenge was ensuring that the voice of Alaska Natives was protected in the political process.
But plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Walleri in court papers said the board “focused near single-mindedness in developing Native effective districts. This single-mindedness included purposefully putting Democratic-leaning voters into HD38, which is clearly using race and partisanship as proxies for each other.”
Walleri also argues that pulling population from the Fairbanks area into House District 38 dilutes the voting strength of the Fairbanks-area voters. He said McConahy failed to recognize this.
Board attorneys Michael White and Nicole Corr, in court papers, said House District 38 was borne of the need for ensure the plan complied with the federal voting rights act. They say the fact that all the Alaska Native districts have more than the 42 percent Native voting age population, which they say is the average minimum target percentage for an effective district, does not mean that the configuration of HD38 was not justified under the federal law.
The board’s executive director, Taylor Bickford, said in an interview that the board had to balance the federal voting rights law with the state constitution. He said the federal law played a central role in the board’s thinking but wasn’t the sole focus.
“We are confident in the legal arguments we’ll be presenting,” he said, adding: “We’re confident the supreme court will correct some of the errors made at the trial court level.”
A swift decision is expected, and the board is tentatively planning meetings for April, he said.
It is then that the board would begin work addressing House Districts 1 and 2, and anything else the court sends back.
Board Chairman John Torgerson has said that the board believes “the fix to House Districts 1 and 2 will be relatively straightforward.” Issues of compactness, which relates to the shape of a district, were raised with both areas.