Previewing the redistricting trial’s date with the Alaska Supreme Court

The Alaska Supreme Court is set to hear the appeals in the Alaska Redistricting trial this morning, challenging and defending various elements of Judge Thomas Matthews’ decision on this decade’s redistricting cycle. The case will decide whether the maps produced by the Alaska Redistricting Board should stand for the next decade, whether they should be redrawn to Matthews’ standards or whether they should be redrawn by a whole different set of standards missed by the lower court.

Its schedule is as follows and the briefings will be broadcast and archived on Gavel Alaska (Like always, I’ll also be live-tweeting the arguments):

  • 9:00AM – 10:00AM: Alaska Redistricting Board’s petition for review regarding Senate District K. 30 minutes per side: Redistricting Board and East Anchorage Plaintiffs.
  • 10:15AM– 11:15AM: Alaska Redistricting Board’s petition for review regarding House District 3 and Municipality of Skagway’s petition for review regarding House Districts 3 & 4. 30 minutes per side: Redistricting Board and Municipality of Skagway.
  • 11:30AM–12:50PM: Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s & City of Valdez’s petitions for review regarding House Districts 29, 30, and 36. 40 minutes total for the Borough & City (20 min each, absent different agreement); 40 minutes total for Redistricting Board, Doyon Intervenors, and Calista Parties to divide by agreement.

All the court filings and briefings that this preview is based on the filings posted the Alaska Appellate Courts’ website.

The ‘hard look’ standard – East Anchorage/Skagway

There’s a load of different issues that are being challenged by just about everyone, but the main issue at the heart of the case is Judge Matthews’ application of the “hard look” standard to the Alaska Redistricting Board’s processes. This “hard look” standard comes from federal law and the essential idea as it applies to redistricting is that public testimony should carry some weight in the process and cannot be dismissed without justification. Basically, he found the board cannot let its own opinions and agenda override public testimony without a good reason for it. Judge Matthews found that the board failed that standard when it came to the East Anchorage Senate pairings—which saw the area cracked to create a safely Republican seat—and in Skagway/Juneau districts. He ruled that, on the other hand, the board had taken a “hard look” at where to place Valdez before ultimately placing it with the Mat-Su Borough.

In filings from the Alaska Redistricting Board, the board counters there’s not a legal basis for this and that the Alaska Constitution’s requirement to take public testimony does not translate to any requirement that the board heed it. The board argues that its members should have broad leeway to drive their decisions with their own judgement in the case, arguing that the required regional diversity for the board’s membership serves as a check on their decisions. The board argues that if let stand, it would create a situation where public testimony would become a high-stakes political battle that would unnecessarily bind the board’s flexibility.

What’s important to note, again, is that Judge Matthews is not actually requiring that they listen to public testimony. He’s just requiring that they justify it in the event it doesn’t align with the personal goals of the board members. It’s also worth pointing out that this idea of a “hard look” isn’t an entirely novel concept and is, as I understand it, to be a pretty common piece of how federal regulatory decisions are litigated. One person who’s been following the case said if a federal regulator had acted the way the Alaska Redistricting Board members have, they’d be, well, pretty dang happy about it.

This is more or less the point that’s made by the East Anchorage plaintiffs, who find themselves in the position of defending Judge Matthews’ ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“If the board was free to disregard such testimony with abandon, this constitutional provision would be meaningless. The federal precedent to which Judge Matthews cites is instructive in terms of the weight of the board, as an administrative body, is required to give public testimony to satisfy the ‘hard look’ standard,” argues the East Anchorage ruling. “The trial court committed no error in looking to this analogous precedent for guidance in interpreting binding principles from this court.”

The brief goes onto argue that the whole point of the “hard look” standard is to ensure that whatever decision produced by the board is not “unfair, irrational or arbitrary” and says that Judge Matthews properly found that the decisions made in East Anchorage were, in fact, arbitrary and irrational. The order then starts to fan out to the several other legal issues raised in Judge Matthews’ ruling that found the Alaska Redistricting Board violated its process, ran afoul of the Open Meetings Act and approached the process with bias. The board, for its part, disputes these points.

The question of “why this all maters” is really answered well by an amicus filing headlined by the Alaska Black Caucus that raises issues around the board’s handling of equal protection clause by splitting East Anchorage. They argue that equal protections and the concept of one person one votes means people have the right to have their vote is equally meaningful. They argue that the board should’ve kept that in mind, especially when Board Member Melanie Bahnke had a proposal that would’ve allowed both East Anchorage and Eagle Rivers have an equally meaningful vote.

“While the board is entitled to choose between two equally justifiable pairings, no case insulates a pairing that impairs the interest of one geographic group in having an equally meaningful vote, when an alternative exists that does not impair the interests of anyone,” explained the briefing.

It goes on to urge the Alaska Redistricting Board to support keeping them together.

“An East Anchorage senate district formed from the two Muldoon house districts would be a swing district, with no guarantee that the next senator would be a Democrat rather than a Republican. But this pairing would guarantee that the votes of East Anchorage would matter,” argues the filing. “Voters could elect a senator who resides in the community, who understands its concerns, and who does not need to compromise those concerns in order also to protect the interest of voters in the other half of a district with very different needs.”

Skagway says it was right on other grounds

Skagway ostensibly got what it wanted from Judge Matthews’ ruling, which found the pairing of Skagway with the Mendenhall Valley portion of Juneau rather than the more progressive downtown Juneau should be revisited to take into account the strong public testimony favoring the reverse. Recall, however, that the board under the “hard look” standard can still ignore the testimony if it at shows some effort to accommodate public testimony before ignoring it. And Judge Matthews did find that the board’s maps would have passed constitutional muster save for this “hard look” standard being applied. So, that’s why Skagway is now appealing to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing that the maps should have been disqualified for not meeting the constitutional standard of socioeconomic integration.

Like many others, they’re also arguing a litany of process violations that include Open Meeting Act violations.

The Mat-Su Borough/Valdez problem

While the Mat-Su Borough and Valdez aren’t perfectly aligned in their complaints about the Alaska Redistricting Board, they both agree that the board was wrong to lump the two together into a shared House district. Like with East Anchorage and Skagway, they’ve also mustered a fair amount of testimony and evidence that their pairings don’t share a strong connection and should be paired in other ways. The problem is that Judge Matthews found the Alaska Redistricting Board at the very least did take its “hard look” at other alternatives and found the rest more problematic in other parts of the state. That’s what also makes this case particularly difficult. While accommodating the public testimony on the East Anchorage pairings and Skagway maps can be done with little disturbances in the rest of the map, the changes needed to accommodate Valdez would create huge ripple effects elsewhere. This drew to the lawsuit, an intervenor coalition led by Doyon, Limited, in defense of the board’s plan.

In the bigger picture, the key issue is whether or not ANCSA region boundaries ought to carry weight in terms of maps in unorganized parts of the state. This is a relatively novel concept for a process that has greatly preferred non-Alaska Native government structures over Alaska Natives. It’s been a largely under-remarked upon piece of the Alaska Redistricting Board, but they’ve given far more preference to Alaska Native groups than previous maps. The Interior house district that Valdez wants into also houses the entirety of the Doyon, Limited region and the Ahtna, Inc., region for the first time in at least several cycles. Judge Matthews found these regional boundaries ought to carry weight in the process, which is the second major bit of precedent that would emerge from this case along with the “hard look” standard.

Like others, the case also brings up violations of the Hickel Process and the Open Meetings Act.

Calista Corporation and ANSCA boundaries

The Calista Corporation’s appeal is interesting because it’s specifically seeking clarity on the role of ANSCA region boundaries in the redistricting process. The board adhered to them when drawing the Interior region district, which has been a major issue in the Valdez case. It didn’t follow them to the same extent when drawing maps around the Calista Corporation region in western Alaska, which was the root of the Calista Corporation’s initial challenge. But it’s not appealing the decision on the maps, but is participating in order to defend peripheral decisions that found:

  • “First, the strong socioeconomic integration of the Calista Region, including the strong ties between Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Chevak, and Bethel;
  • “And second, that the Alaska Redistricting Board must make efforts to keep those villages and the region together”

The filing argues that establishing these two issues is important for the long-term interests of the region and are not worth risking on an appeal. It’s also seeking clarity from the Alaska Supreme Court on the position that ANSCA region boundaries should play in future redistricting efforts, arguing they should carry weight with the board because they are good indicators of socioeconomic connection just as the non-Alaska Native governments have long enjoyed in the process.


The Alaska Supreme Court is expected to have a decision by April 1. That would give the Alaska Redistricting Board less than a month to redraw its maps in order to update its maps to reflect the ruling. Like in 2012, the board may argue that this is an impossible task, and the court may give them some lenience for the extent of its changes. In 2012, the elections were conducted with an interim map before a final map was produced for the 2014 elections.

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