With the candidate filing deadline just a month and change away, the judge overseeing the legal battles over Alaska’s redistricting plan has shortened the window for new legal challenges in hopes to settle issues before then.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews issued an order on Wednesday that sets a May 3 deadline for new legal challenges against the Alaska Redistricting Board’s reworked plan. Typically, voters would have 30 days after the board’s adoption of a plan—which was done on April 14—to file legal challenges but the law gives Judge Matthews flexibility when it comes to expediting the process.
“Given the fast-approaching deadline for candidate filings, it will be impossible for this court and the Supreme Court to process, hear and decide the merits of any challenge to the Amended plan if it is filed as late as 30 days after the board’s amended proclamation,” he wrote in his order. “In the court’s view, an expedited process will provide for a maximum opportunity for the parties, voters, the general public and potential candidates for office to make informed and reasonable decisions in time to meet the upcoming June 1 deadline for candidate filings.”
Judge Matthews found the original plan by the Alaska Redistricting Board unconstitutionally sought to boost the political advantage of the deeply conservative Eagle River at the expense of East Anchorage voters by lumping the two together into a single Senate district. The Alaska Redistricting Board’s conservative majority responded by pairing Eagle River with South Anchorage, which critics say is a retread of the same ploy simply with a different community on the losing end of the exchange.
The board’s adopted plan has already drawn a pair of legal challenges. The East Anchorage plaintiffs, who won their case against the Alaska Redistricting Board, are challenging the amended plan as a repeat of that gerrymander. They argue that even though Judge Matthews’ direction to the board wasn’t explicit that Eagle River should be made into a single Senate district doing so was necessary to fix the errors in the original plan. Judge Matthews heard oral arguments on that appeal earlier this week and a decision is expected “soon.”
If the East Anchorage appeal fails, there’s a second case ready to move forward against the amended plan. A group of Girdwood residents from the South Anchorage district has brought forward a challenge that largely mirrors the East Anchorage case, arguing that being paired with Eagle River deprives them of a meaningful vote on their representation in the Legislature. Judge Matthews has said if the case does move forward, he plans to have a decision on that case by May 15 in order to leave time for “one further last-ditch appeal” to the Alaska Supreme Court. A scheduling hearing on that challenge is scheduled for later today.
Why it matters
The looming filing deadline has weighed heavily over the redistricting process, which got an extremely late start thanks to delays with the U.S. Census. At the oral arguments earlier this week, East Anchorage attorney Holly Wells noted that her side believes Alaska Redistricting Board’s goal is to delay the resolution of the legal challenges until after the June 1 deadline, cementing the Republican advantage contained in these maps for at least this year’s election cycle.
History would show she has reason to be concerned because that very thing occurred in the 2012 elections. Because of the ongoing legal challenges and that board’s dedication to his political mission, the 2012 elections were held under a map that shattered the bipartisan majority in the Alaska Senate—defeating several key incumbents—only for the courts to order the maps be altered again in time for the 2014 elections. Independent redistricting board member Nicole Borromeo also accused board chair John Binkley—a Republican—of intentionally running out the clock, saying during break that he thought it unlikely anyone could force changes in time for this year’s elections.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Irrelevant,” Binkley replied at the time, speaking over Borromeo’s objections before hurrying to a vote on the plan, “We could go on all day about who said what or who felt they overheard somebody.”