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If there’s a lesson from Judge Thomas Matthews’ ruling on the Alaska Redistricting trial, it’s don’t ignore public testimony.
In an order published early this morning, Matthews struck down the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to divide Eagle River’s House districts and pair one half into a Senate district with East Anchorage despite “loud and clear” public testimony against the arrangement and “ignored the clear weight of testimony” in its mapping of Skagway and Juneau. He found that in both cases, the board improperly deferred to the wishes of its conservative members and “believed they knew better than the people.”
The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise given the trial’s focus on the constitutional guidelines for drawing new maps. Matthews ultimately found a litany of arguments around socioeconomic, compactness and contiguity to be unconvincing in the five challenges brought against the board’s maps, instead focusing in on what he ruled were clear efforts by the board to prioritize their personal agendas over the public testimony that the board is required by the Alaska Constitution to hear.
“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 in his order. “The same holds true for the East Anchorage senate pairings. If the board could simply ignore the preponderance of public testimony and make decisions based on a single member’s personal views, then Section 10 (of the Alaska Constitution that requires public input on redistricting) would be rendered superfluous.”
Judge Matthews was most scathing in his assessment of the board’s decision-making around the East Anchorage, which he said there was ample evidence of underhanded dealings that led to the intentional discrimination against East Anchorage voters.
“Given substantial evidence of secretive procedures, regional partisanship and selective ignorance of political subdivisions and communities of interest, Court finds that the board intentionally discriminated against the residents of East Anchorage in favor of Eagle River,” he wrote, “and this intentional discrimination had an illegitimate purpose.”
In the East Anchorage case, plaintiffs argued the decision to split Eagle River’s House districts across two Senate districts gave the conservative Eagle River an outsized advantage in representation at the expense of East Anchorage voters. In addition to political analysis, they pointed to comments from conservative board member Bethany Marcum that the maps would give Eagle River “more representation,” which ended up proving key in Matthews’ decision-making.
“The court agrees with Ms. Marcum that Senate District K gives Eagle River more representation. However, it appears to have also the converse impact of diluting representation in East Anchorage. There was testimony submitted that spoke directly to that impact, where one resident expressed that the last time the board paired a portion of East Anchorage with Eagle River ‘it took Senator Bettye Davis from us and from having a voice.’ Where the board argues that the current senate pairings actually spreads Muldoon among more Senate districts, giving it more Senate seats, that arguments falls flat in the face of the reality. Instead, it seems Muldoon is actually cracked among multiple senate districts and its voting strength is diluted as a result,” Matthews wrote. “At the same time, Eagle River’s voting strength is strengthened. Pairing South Muldoon with Eagle River will solidify Senate Seat K as a firmly Republican seat, while providing more representation to Eagle River in splitting it into two Senate seats.”
The decisions around the East Anchorage Senate seat pairings were the most contentious ones made by the board, resulting in several heated exchanges between the board’s conservative majority (Board members Marcum, board chair John Binkley and member Budd Simpson) with stout and vocal opposition raised by members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke, who both ultimately signed onto the plan in dissent over the pairings. The decision to settle on the maps came quickly after a lengthy closed-door meeting without opportunity for debate or even an explanation.
Matthews found that the process raised serious issues.
“While the court does not make this finding lightly, it does find evidence of secretive procedures evident in the board’s consideration and deliberation of the Anchorage Senate seat pairings. Initially, in contrast to the process to craft house seats, overwhelming public testimony against splitting and combining Eagle River and Muldoon seemed to be all together ignored,” he wrote. “The public portion of the record leads to only one reasonable inference: some sort of coalition or at least a tacit understanding between members Marcum, Simpson and Binkley.”
Matthews notes that from the record, it appears that the board didn’t even have a good idea of what it was voting on or agreeing to when Marcum put forward the maps. Instead, it appears the board’s conservative trio was singularly focused on delivering Marcum a win. He also said it appears political considerations were given weight in this process, despite it being a non-partisan process.
“The board seems to have articulated its understanding of this in the public sessions, but there are indications that there were times where the board engaged in partisan decision making behind closed doors,” Matthews wrote. “To the extent that this may have happened, it is not acceptable.”
In the Skagway case, the plaintiffs argued that the maps should be invalidated on socioeconomic grounds. They argued that Skagway had more in common with Downtown Juneau—particularly on their reliance on the cruise industry and in their shared opposition to the Juneau Road—than with Juneau’s comparatively conservative Mendenhall Valley. Judge Matthews found this point unconvincing in light of the established precedent that the process sees no difference of socioeconomic integration within a municipality like Juneau. If Skagway is integrated with Downtown Juneau, then it’s integrated with all of Juneau.
Instead, Judge Matthews turned again to the issue of public testimony, finding it particularly troubling that the board deferred almost entirely to the personal opinions of Board Member Budd Simpson on Southeast maps. During testimony, Simpson said he was driven more by his own personal distaste of the current maps than public testimony that supported the status quo.
“Member Simpson’s testimony before this court also reflects a misunderstanding of the role of the board and public hearings. He opines that he was entitled to use his own judgement based on his own experience of living in Southeast Alaska. But Member Simpson acknowledges that any substantive knowledge was not why he was chosen; instead, ‘they were looking for a Republican from Southeast,’ which he described ass a ‘short list.’ … Member Simpson’s personal views and opinions are entitled to no additional constitutional deference,” Matthews wrote, later adding, “The board effectively concedes that Member Simpson made no attempt to accommodate the clear weight of public testimony. Instead, the board points to just four comments that supported Member Simpson’s version of Districts 3 and 4.”
Judge Matthews also noted that the board was inconsistent with how it handled public testimony.
“Testimony before this court revealed a number of instances where the process worked as intended, and the board adjusted its proposed maps in response to public testimony. Where that process was not followed, however, appears to be where individual board members had a personal stake in the decision-making process and believed they knew better than the people.”
Matthews’ ruling calls for the board to more seriously weigh public testimony in its decision-making process.
“Skagway’s unsuccessful trial arguments aside, the board is nonetheless obligated to make a good-faith attempt to incorporate the public testimony of Alaska citizens. It simply did not.”
Judge Matthews stopped short of ordering the board to deliver the wishes of the plaintiffs. Instead, he’s ordering the board back to the drawing board on both issues with the direction of better incorporating the public testimony they heard into the maps or, at the very least, come up with a very good explanation as to why it should be ignored.
“On remand, the board must either redraw these districts to incorporate the reasonable requests supported by the clear weight of public testimony, or the board must offer an explanation as to why it believes the constitution, federal law, or other traditional redistricting criteria make it impossible to achieve those results.”
An interesting point to keep in mind is that neither case requires significant overhauls of the maps. The East Anchorage case calls for a reshuffling of the Anchorage area’s Senate pairings and the Skagway case calls for a rework of the borders within the two Juneau House districts, which won’t impact other districts.
The other three cases at issue in the trial would require significant rewriting of the maps.
The case is expected to be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which extended its deadline for this case to allow the proceeding more time. The Alaska Redistricting Board is scheduled to meet today at 11 a.m.
Judge Matthews rejected claims raised by the Mat-Su Borough, Valdez and the Calista Corporation. While the specifics of each case vary, Judge Matthews found no evidence that the Alaska Redistricting Board intentionally ignored public testimony or acted in bad faith when it came to the standards of redistricting. In fact, Judge Matthews argued that the board made several good-faith attempts to accommodate their concerns, like Valdez’s rocky relationship with Mat-Su.
“As for the Mat-Su/Valdez, as discussed earlier, the board did take a “hard look” at the issue of where to put Valdez and certainly did not ignore public testimony. The board essentially began and ended the process with Valdez. Instead, the board was simply unable to find a way to fulfill those requests while still meeting constitutional requirements elsewhere,” Matthews wrote. “Although this may have been affected by the order in which it addressed certain regions on the map first, thus not keeping all of its options open, the board acted reasonably in its ultimately doomed efforts to keep Mat-Su/Valdez separate.”
The three plaintiffs all still have the opportunity to appeal their cases to the Alaska Supreme Court.