Judge raises constitutional issues with parts of Alaska map

February 17, 2022 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge has raised constitutional concerns with the handling of east Anchorage Senate districts and part of the southeast Alaska map by the board tasked with redrawing the state’s political boundaries.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, in a ruling dated Tuesday, ordered the plan returned to the Alaska Redistricting Board to “take a ‘hard look’ ” at a Senate district that pairs part of Anchorage’s Muldoon area with an Eagle River area House district, and two southeast Alaska House districts for which he had found the board had “ignored the clear weight” of public testimony from Skagway and Juneau.

Matthews said the board must either redraw the districts called into question “to incorporate the reasonable requests supported by the clear weight of public testimony” or “offer an explanation as to why it believes the constitution, federal law, or other traditional redistricting criteria make it impossible to achieve those results.”

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The redistricting board plans to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Matthew Singer, an attorney for the board, said during a board meeting Wednesday that the weight given by the judge to the role of public testimony in the process is a “different concept.” If that position is not challenged or allowed to stand, it could encourage interest groups in the future to spend more effort getting people to testify, he said.

Matthews, the judge, said the board failed to hold “meaningful public hearings” on proposed Senate districts before they were adopted. In comments the board did receive, “support for keeping Muldoon and Eagle River separate was loud and clear,” Matthews wrote.

The board split the Eagle River area into two Senate districts. One pairs an Eagle River House district with an Anchorage district that includes a military base. The other pairs part of the Muldoon area with a “geographically and demographically distinct” Eagle River area House district, according to Matthews’ ruling.

Senate districts are created by pairing House districts.

“This Court finds that the Board’s refusal to consider and make a good-faith effort to incorporate public feedback relating to the placement of Skagway and the dividing line in Juneau was arbitrary and capricious, and thus unreasonable,” Matthews wrote. “The same holds true for the East Anchorage senate pairings.”

Skagway argued there was strong public testimony in favor of keeping the community in a district that included downtown Juneau. The board plan instead included Skagway in a district with other parts of Juneau.

Matthews did not find in favor of claims raised by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Valdez and Calista Corp., which had also sued over portions of the map.

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The redistricting board voted 3-2 Wednesday in separate votes to appeal issues dealing with Skagway and the Senate pairings. Members John Binkley, Bethany Marcum and Budd Simpson were in favor, and members Melanie Bahnke and Nicole Borromeo dissented.

Bahnke and Borromeo, who were in opposition to the redistricting plan finalized last year, said changes could be made easily to address the issues Matthews raised. But other board members said it made sense to have the Alaska Supreme Court weigh in, citing Singer’s analysis.

In a statement, the board’s executive director, Peter Torkelson, said while the board “prevailed on many counts, it remains committed to defending its House and Senate plans before the Supreme Court and will continue to demonstrate that it fully complied with Alaska’s Constitutional redistricting process.”