Alaska high court finds Senate district unconstitutional

Two men stand in front of a map of Alaska
Alaska Redistricting Board Chairman John Binkley talks with Juneau resident Reed Stoops during a redistricting open house event at Centennial Hall in Juneau in September 2021. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that a state Senate district pairing part of east Anchorage and the Eagle River area by the board tasked with rewriting Alaska’s political boundaries constituted an “unconstitutional political gerrymander.”

The court said it was affirming a finding by Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews regarding Senate District K.

Two House districts equal one Senate district. The Senate district at issue pairs a House district that includes part of Anchorage’s Muldoon area with an Eagle River area House district that Matthews last month described as “geographically and demographically distinct.” Matthews had concluded the board’s pairing violated the equal protection rights of the Anchorage residents who had sued.

The pairing had drawn intense discussion among Alaska Redistricting Board members last fall as they worked to finalize new maps. Member Nicole Borromeo said she believed the pairing would open the board to “an unfortunate and very easily winnable argument of partisan gerrymandering.”

Member Bethany Marcum had proposed the pairing. She also proposed pairing an Eagle River House district with an Anchorage district that includes a military base. She said there were strong ties between the base and Eagle River and socio-economic ties between Muldoon and Eagle River.

Borromeo and board member Melanie Bahnke opposed the plan finalized by the five-member board.

The Supreme Court in its order Friday took issue with the board’s drawing of House District 36 and said the so-called Cantwell Appendage was in violation of the state Constitution. The board plan plucks Cantwell from a district that includes other parts of the Denali Borough. The court said the Cantwell Appendage rendered House District 36 “non-compact without adequate justification.”

Matthews had found the district constitutional.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s call that the board “take a ‘hard look’” at two southeast Alaska House districts. The high court found there was no “constitutional infirmity” with House Districts 3 and 4.

Peter Torkelson, the board’s executive director, said the board was “pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with the Board on 39 of Alaska’s 40 house districts and 19 of 20 Senate districts.” He said in a statement that the board will meet soon to discuss the decision.

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