Alaska Supreme Court finds Anchorage senate pairings are an unconstitutional gerrymander

The Alaska Supreme Court concludes a long day of oral arguments in the Alaska Redistricting trial on Friday, March 18, 2022.

A week ahead of schedule, the Alaska Supreme Court has reached a decision in the legal battle over the state’s redistricting plan and the Alaska Redistricting Board will have to head back to the drawing board.

Today’s ruling upholds Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews’ decision that found pairing an East Anchorage House district with the conservative Eagle River was, in fact, an “unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution.”

The ruling upholds the most politically impactful decision from the challenges to the Alaska Redistricting Board’s plan, which opponents as well as Judge Matthews had found improperly advantaged Republicans at the expense of swing voters in East Anchorage. While the board had argued the court shouldn’t review political gerrymandering decisions, the justices at oral argument last week seemed largely unconvinced.

The East Anchorage Senate pairings were also the most contentious issue of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s work with the conservative majority pushing ahead with the plan despite vocal objections from board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke, who proposed alternatives that kept Eagle River together and East Anchorage together.

“Oh happy day!” Bahnke tweeted. “Just Say No to Gerrymandering!”

On the other grounds, however, the Alaska Supreme Court saw it differently than Judge Matthews.

It reversed his decision that found the pairing of Skagway with Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley rather than Juneau’s more progressive downtown area was wrong based on public testimony. The court found that the public testimony requirement applied by Judge Matthews—called the “hard look” standard—wasn’t grounds to reverse the maps that were found to otherwise meet constitutional requirements.

The board agreed in large part with Judge Matthews’ finding that the maps covering the Mat-Su Borough and Valdez met the constitutional standards but found that the odd appendage called the Cantwell carveout violated the Alaska Constitution and should be revisited. The Alaska Redistricting Board carved the community out of the Denali Borough and placed it with the rural Interior district, arguing that it better satisfied the Alaska Constitution’s standard that districts be socioeconomically integrated. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with the findings, finding it contradicted other arguments by the board.

“The Cantwell Appendage renders House District 36 non-compact without adequate justification,” the Alaska Supreme Court found, adding that the board applied concepts of compactness and socioeconomic integration inconsistently. “The board’s briefings about (Juneau and Skagway) argues: ‘Nothing in (the Alaska Constitution) states that the Board should disregard compactness to increase an already socio-economically integrated area’s integration.”

With this decision, the Alaska Redistricting Board will be required to update its maps to reflect the rulings on the Anchorage Senate pairings, which has the possibility to impact the pairings throughout the city, as well as remove the Cantwell carveout. The filing deadline is June 1.

The decision

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