Alaska Redistricting trial comes down to conflicting opinions of judge’s opinion

East Anchorage attorney Holly Wells responds to arguments put forward by Alaska Redistricting Board counsel Matt Singer (top right) about what Judge Thomas Matthews (top left) meant when he sent the board back to the drawing table to fix its unconstitutional political gerrymander.

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The Alaska Redistricting Board and the East Anchorage plaintiffs were back in Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews’ digital courtroom today for oral arguments over the board’s latest iteration of the Anchorage-area state Senate pairings. It’s been a long, litigious path with plenty of late nights, tight turnarounds and Gold Medal-worthy legal gymnastics that’s produced some truly odd moments. So, I suppose, it makes sense that today’s oral arguments boiled down to the East Anchorage plaintiffs and the Alaska Redistricting Board arguing to Judge Matthews about what Judge Matthews really intended when he sent the Alaska Redistricting Board back to the drawing table.

When Judge Matthews found the board’s creation of a state Senate seat from East Anchorage and Eagle River to be an unconstitutional gerrymander that gave Eagle River a political advantage at the expense of East Anchorage did he:

  1. Intend for the board to create an all-East Anchorage seat and a separate all-Eagle River state Senate seat as the East Anchorage plaintiffs argue?
  2. Intend to give the board free reign as long as East Anchorage and Eagle River didn’t end up in the same state Senate district, which resulted in the board approving an all-East Anchorage seat and an Eagle River/South Anchorage seat while keeping the Eagle River/JBER and Government Hill seat in tact?

The Alaska Redistricting Board argued that Judge Matthews and the Alaska Supreme Court weren’t prescriptive with how Eagle River should be handled and therefore this appeal should be rejected (conveniently falling back to a slower litigation schedule that pushes up against the June 1 candidate filing deadline for this year’s elections). The board’s case hinges on the fact that the order remanding the work to the board only called on the board to “correct the Constitutional errors identified by this Court and the Supreme court in Senate District K.” It doesn’t explicitly say what the board should do, the board argues, and certainly doesn’t say there should be a unified Eagle River seat. Board counsel Matt Singer pulled a Bill Clinton when he argued the whole thing comes down to what the definition of “in” is. He argues that “in” means the only errors that the board was required to address were the ones within Senate District K, which was the untenable connection between East Anchorage and Eagle River. Nothing, he argued, was required of the board beyond severing that connection.

East Anchorage’s attorney Holly Wells argued the redrawing process doesn’t erase the unconstitutional intent that invalidated the original plan. The plan wasn’t just found unconstitutional because it connected the disparate East Anchorage and Eagle River communities of interest, she said, it was found unconstitutional because it intended to boost the representation of Eagle River at the expense of another community. Nothing, she said, changes because the board went back to the drawing table and was a bit more careful about what they said on the record. The end result is Eagle River’s conservative voters are still in command of two Senate districts, she said, and the only thing that’s changed is who’s on the losing end of the deal.

“The reality is the Alaska Redistricting Board split up the Eagle River community of interest for political purposes. Those political purposes were found unlawful, the board was required to correct the unconstitutional conduct reflected in Senate District K, the board corrected it with regard to one district and not the other,” she said. “The board cleverly preserved the fruits of its unlawful political gerrymander. This action, this intent that continues to carry on does not comply with the order. That’s it.”

She argued that the rotten intent behind the last map must still be considered when the board approached the new mapping process. They should have, she argues, taken into account Judge Matthews’ order that found Eagle River and East Anchorage both constituted communities of interest and that there was little justification for breaking them up. From Judge Matthews’ order: “There is ample public comment, as well as testimony during trial, that Eagle River Muldoon are respective ‘communities of interest,’ with little convincing information to the contrary. The Court sees that the Senate Districts ignore the Muldoon and Eagle River communities of interest with very little justification.” Of course, we’ve since had a pitched, partisan battle of public testimony in front of the board. How much that’ll matter since the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the weight Judge Matthews gave to testimony is anyone’s guess.

For all the back and forth over what Judge Matthews meant with his order, Judge Matthews didn’t have much to say about it during today’s hearing. He did, however, point out that his order was not explicit about what should be done with Eagle River (one point for the Alaska Redistricting Board), but also pointed out that the Alaska Redistricting Board was ignoring the third bullet-point of his order that called for the board to “make other revisions to the proclamation plan resulting or related to these changes” with the errors around Senate K (one point, maybe, for East Anchorage).

Judge Matthews said he will have a decision on the East Anchorage appeal “soon.”

The start of another

With the understanding that it’s all conditioned on the outcome of the East Anchorage appeal, the end of the hearing concluded with a fair bit of discussion about the timeline and process ahead for the new challenge being brought forward by a group of Girdwood residents. They filed their lawsuit yesterday, arguing the board repeated its goal of enforcing Eagle River’s political advantage this time at the expense of the South Anchorage and Girdwood voters in House District 9. The case largely mirrors the case that was successfully argued by East Anchorage but is reinforced by having residents who live in new constitutionally questionable districts and are also not financially tapped out.

The one firm deadline set by Judge Matthews is May 15 for a final decision in the plan, which he said should give just enough time for “one further last-ditch appeal” to the Alaska Supreme Court before the maps must be locked in for this year’s legislative races. It sounds like another expedited schedule with the first round of briefings expected to be due sometime next week. Oral arguments, if needed, could be held the following week. At least the Girdwood plaintiffs are getting a running start because they’re being represented by the legal team—Eva Gardner, Mike Schechter and company—that was involved in the first round (that other case has been resolved so it’s not a joint representation situation).

Stay tuned!

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