ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the state's redistricting map and sent it back to the state Redistricting Board to be reworked, including a House district in Southeast.
The map, which was approved by the five-member board last June, faced nine legal challenges. Plaintiffs included individuals, as well as the Republican Party, the cities of Anchorage, Valdez, Wasilla, Cordova and Craig, and the Aleutians East and the Lake and Peninsula boroughs.
"We obviously feel we have been vindicated," said plaintiffs' lawyer Michael White. "We are very happy with the Supreme Court. We felt that these were the points we were making all along."
Board lawyer Philip R. Volland was unavailable for comment.
Plaintiffs had complained that the 40-district map failed to satisfy state constitutional requirements that districts be compact, of equal population and socially and economically integrated.
Republicans also complained the map was blatantly partisan
because it pitted 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the 2002 election.
The Supreme Court found more wrong with the map than the lower court had earlier this year. Candidates are facing a June 1 filing deadline.
Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner had ruled that House District 16 in Chugiak failed to meet state constitutional requirements because it was not compact. He also ruled that House District 12, which includes part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and all of the Denali Borough, did not have enough in common socially and economically. But he rejected all other challenges to the plan.
The Supreme Court justices went much further. They agreed that House District 16 is not compact. They also found that House District 5 in Southeast Alaska is not compact.
House District 5 would stretch from southern Southeast to some communities in Prince William Sound, while dividing Prince of Wales Island between two house districts.
The court ordered the board to either correct the compactness problem of House District 5, or find that its configuration is necessary under the federal Voting Rights Act because it preserves political representation of Alaska Natives.
The judges also found that House District 12, which includes part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and all of the Denali Borough, needs review, as does House District 32, which paired south Anchorage with Valdez.
"House District 16 contains a bizarrely-shaped appendage in the southwestern portion of the district. The inclusion of this appendage is unnecessary," the justices said.
In one of the most contentious issues the board faced, the justices disagreed with how it dealt with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Anchorage and Valdez.
The justices found that the board was mistaken in its understanding that it could not pair the borough and Anchorage in a single district. The board shied away from the pairing out of concerns that it would not give Anchorage and the borough all the House seats it was entitled to. That decision by the board was key to its pairing of south Anchorage with Valdez.
Plaintiffs had complained that south Anchorage and Valdez were not sufficiently integrated socially and economically.
The high court said the Delta Junction area needs to be reviewed because the districts encompassing the area need reconsideration.
The justices wrote, "On remand the board should take a hard look at alternatives, including constitutional alternatives that preserve socio-economically integrated areas."
But the Lake and Peninsula borough lost its argument with the high court.
Plaintiffs had said the borough was not socially and economically integrated. But the court found that the board had to draw population from either Lake and Peninsula Borough or the Kenai Peninsula Borough because the Kodiak Island Borough did not have enough population on its own to form House District 36.
Meanwhile, the Legislative Affairs Agency has stopped paying Volland's bills, saying the Redistricting Board's budget for legal expenses has run out. Volland's law partner, Scott Taylor, said the firm will continue to represent the board.
The board has asked the Legislature for funding through its supplemental budget process. But Sen. Dave Donley, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said it's unclear whether the Legislature will fund the extension.
The state has paid the law firm $635,000 so far, the maximum allowed under the firm's contract, state officials said. Since then, Volland and Taylor sent another bill of $167,000 for work performed through Feb. 20.