Alaska Supreme Court strikes down GOP-friendly gerrymander, orders new map for 2022

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The Alaska Supreme Court didn’t need to hear oral arguments in the Alaska Redistricting Board’s second appearance before them to find the board “again engaged in unconstitutional political gerrymandering to increase one group’s voting power at the expense of others.”

The order affirms the ruling issued by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews last week that found the board’s decision to split Eagle River was an intentional effort by the board’s Republican members to boost Republican advantage in the Anchorage-area Senate races. It also affirms Judge Matthews’ decision to order the board to adopt a specific alternative, finding there’s no reasonable alternatives to approve ahead of the June 1 filing deadline for the 2022 elections.

“The board presumably believed option 2 fulfilled constitutional requirements, or it would not have adopted it for public presentation and consideration for a proclamation,” the Alaska Supreme Court said of the option they ordered to be adopted. “We are about a week short of June 1 and the board has made no known effort to prepare or present to us an interim plan other than option 2.”

The Senate pairings ordered by the Alaska Supreme Court.

The alternative that will be used for the 2022 elections pairs the deeply conservative Eagle River together in one Senate district, the conservative South Anchorage together in its own Senate district and the liberal-leaning East Anchorage together. It also orders the House district that covers Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Government Hill be paired with the Downtown Anchorage, creating what most consider to be a safe Senate district for Democrats. The board has the option to revisit the pairings for future elections, but it will be difficult for them to extend the advantage as long as Eagle River is kept together.

That JBER/Government Hill pairing with Eagle River was central to the Alaska Redistricting Board’s efforts to boost Republican advantage in the Legislature, arguing JBER’s military voters would be best served if they were lumped together with the deeply conservative Eagle River. In both public conversations and private emails, the board’s conservatives worried that pairing it with any of other the adjacent Anchorage districts would have benefitted Democrats.

The latest round of litigation was brought by Girdwood residents in the South Anchorage district that was paired with Eagle River after the board was sent back to the drawing board by the Alaska Supreme Court to fix the gerrymander of putting Eagle River with East Anchorage. The Girdwood plaintiffs argued that it was essentially the same gerrymander in a different package. Judge Matthews agreed.

This is the second time this year that this Court has been called upon to determine whether the Alaska Redistricting Board fulfilled its constitutional responsibility in drawing the Senate map for Anchorage voters. After this court found the board failed in its first attempt, the Alaska Supreme Court confirmed the board had engaged in partisan gerrymandering. Following remand to the board, a new map was drawn. This time, the process occurred mostly in public. But the Amended Plan still provides Eagle River with effective control of two senate seats. Girdwood Plaintiffs have challenged the map claiming it still amounts to a partisan gerrymander. This court agrees.

The board will still have to approve the new maps ahead of the June 1 candidate filing deadline. While it’s unlikely that the board has any other options available to it, its members have already shown they’re willing to snub the Alaska Supreme Court. Chair John Binkley voted against a separate fix ordered by the Alaska Supreme Court that came out of the original round of litigation, arguing he thought they got it wrong.

Stay tuned.

A foundation built on ‘nuts’ and ‘crazy’

The latest ruling comes after a bitter fight over the weekend where board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke filed their own legal motion challenging the legitimacy of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court because the decision came from a two-member subcommittee. The board held a snap meeting on Sunday in order to give the decision appeal its blessing on a 3-2 vote—which appeased the concerns in the eyes of the Alaska Supreme Court—but both Borromeo and Bahnke had harsh criticisms for the board’s appeal.

Borromeo, who works as the general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, accused board counsel Matt Singer of privately bad-mouthing the justifications put forward by the board’s conservatives—allegedly calling them “nuts” and “crazy” and other things that couldn’t be repeated in polite company. She argued that it showed their legal position was built on a shaky foundation from the start. Singer, for his part, said he was just following the orders of whoever could muster a majority.

“As your lawyer, I’m going to need to continue to follow directions provided to me by the board, by any collection of at least three of you and if at least three of you delegate authority to a committee, I’m obligated to follow the direction of that committee,” he said on Sunday. “I’m not in a position to take a different action if one member directs me to do something other than what the board’s directed.”

Bahnke agreed with Borromeo’s assessment, arguing the board’s appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court was weak and failed to address the concerns raised by Judge Matthews.

The Alaska Supreme Court agreed.

The order finds the attacks on Judge Matthews’ ruling were not only not convincing but also missed the mark. Here’s one particularly scathing section:

“The Board contends that the superior court erred as a matter of law by placing the burden of persuasion on the board to prove it was not illegally discriminating in favor of Eagle River voters and other voters. This argument is specious. The superior court expressly and clearly stated that it was not placing the burden of persuasion on the board, but rather the proclamation plan challengers.”

Political impact

The ruling is, obviously, a loss for Republicans who had hoped to extend their political advantage in the increasingly blue Anchorage to the maximum extent. Under the previous plan, four of the city’s eight Senate districts were expected to safely be in the hands of Republicans while Democrats were likely to hold onto three, leaving one swing district. The new maps are more even-handed, with three solidly Republican seats, three solidly Democratic seats and two swing seats with one being a tossup and the other leaning Democrat.

While it may be a loss for the overall Alaska Republican Party, the plan is good news to Republican incumbents. The plan approved by the board would have forced Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold to run against South Anchorage Republican Sen. Roger Holland (as well as former Republican Senate President Cathy Giessel, who is also running for re-election in the district). All three testified to the board against the pairing, arguing that it would undermine the quality of representation for both Eagle River and South Anchorage.

The board’s conservatives argued, instead, that their opposition was proof that their plan didn’t have any ulterior motive. Borromeo called them out, noting that Reinbold has long been a thorn in the side of Republicans and has publicly feuded with Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy over the pandemic response (Giessel was also never a fan of the governor and stymied many of his legislative efforts during her time as Senate President).

The ruling

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