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Appeal looms as judge strikes down East Anchorage Senate map, Southeast House district

An Anchorage judge has struck down two of Alaska's new political maps, the state's redistricting board is set to appeal.
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 3:10 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - An Anchorage Superior Court judge has struck down a new Senate map that pairs parts of East Anchorage with Eagle River and a House district that connects Skagway with the Mendenall Valley in Juneau.

The Alaska Redistricting Board voted to appeal Judge Thomas Matthews’ 171-page decision to the Alaska Supreme Court. Three conservative members of the board voted to appeal, the two more liberal members voted not to.

The Anchorage judge found “secret procedures” to create the Senate district that groups parts of East Anchorage with Eagle River. He said the evidence suggested “some sort of coalition or at least a tacit understanding” between conservative board members John Binkley, Budd Simpson and Bethany Marcum.

All three voted in favor of that map after virtually no public testimony, which the judge criticized. Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke voted against that map and wrote a scathing minority opinion when the board’s work finished.

The Superior Court judge noted that Eagle River is reliably Republican and South Muldoon is a swing district. Matthews said the board was aware that pairing the two together would effectively “dilute” East Anchorage’s voting power and said that was evidence of “regional partisanship.”

“This intentional discrimination had an illegitimate purpose,” he added.

Marcum, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, had said during public board debates that the new map would create “more representation” for Eagle River by giving it two Senate seats. During a meeting on Wednesday, Marcum claimed there had been “mischaracterization” of that statement.

The vast majority of public testimony received by the board was in favor of keeping Eagle River and Muldoon separate, but that was ignored, the judge said. He wrote generally that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act by improperly holding discussions, and possibly making key decisions, behind closed doors.

“The violation does not, on balance, require the Court to void all actions taken by the Board in executive sessions,” Matthews said.

The Municipality of Skagway challenged a House district approved by the board that grouped it together with the Mendenall Valley instead of downtown Juneau. Virtually all public testimony was opposed to that plan.

Matthews said the board’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and he ordered the board to take “a hard look” at that map and the East Anchorage-Eagle River Senate district.

But he was complimentary of the “Herculean task” the board had performed in getting the maps drawn in an expedited time frame and upheld a majority of the redistricting work. Three other challenges of the board’s maps were rejected:

  • The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the City of Valdez had both challenged being grouped together due to concerns they are not socioeconomically integrated or in a compact district. The Mat-Su Borough was also concerned its new districts are overpopulated.
  • Calista Corp. challenged a House district in Western Alaska that separated Scammon Bay and Hooper Bay from Bethel. That challenge was rejected with the judge noting other Calista communities are separated into different districts.

Both those rulings can be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. The deadline to file is Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, the Alaska Redistricting Board met to discuss the judge’s decision and decide next steps. Matt Singer, the board’s attorney, suggested that the judge focused on oral public testimony instead of compactness of districts, creating a “new legal standard.”

The board then went into a long executive session to discuss the ruling. After reconvening, the board voted 3-2 to appeal Matthews’ decision to strike down the Skagway and the East Anchorage maps.

Binkley, the board’s chair, said the judge “had plowed new ground” through this decision. Marcum said it had “novel concepts” and that the board should “get clarity” from the state’s highest court.

Bahnke and Borromeo opposed appealing the judge’s decision, arguing that the board could quickly redraw the East Anchorage-Eagle River Senate map and connect Skagway with downtown Juneau.

“I don’t see it as a winnable case on appeal,” Borromeo, an attorney, said about the East Anchorage issue in particular.

The Alaska Supreme Court is expected to hold oral arguments in March. A final decision has been scheduled to be issued on or before April 1. The board could be required to quickly redraw its maps before the June 1 filing deadline for Alaska state candidates.

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