JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the state’s new political boundaries be redrawn with greater deference to the Alaska Constitution.
The decision comes just one day after the court heard arguments in the case.
The court, in its decision, commends the Alaska Redistricting Board for its work, saying the record shows the board tried to weigh competing constitutional and statutory provisions.
But it pointed to an earlier case, in which the court found that while compliance with a federal voting rights law takes precedence over compliance with the state constitution, the voting law need not be elevated in such a way that the requirements of the constitution are unnecessarily compromised.
Wednesday’s decision says the board must adhere to the process laid out in that case, Hickel v. Southeast Conference. The decision says the board must design a plan focusing on the constitutional requirements, then determine if it complies with federal law. If it doesn’t comply, the board is to make revisions deviating from the constitution when deviation is the only means available to meet the federal voting act requirements.
Because the board didn’t follow the process, the court said the board cannot meaningfully demonstrate that the plan’s constitutional deficiencies were necessitated by the federal voting rights act. And, the decision said, the court cannot reliably decide the question.
“We recognize that the board is faced with a difficult task in attempting to harmonize the requirements of the Alaska Constitution and the Voting Rights Act,” the decision states. “We have previously characterized the redistricting process in Alaska as ‘a task of “Herculean proportions,”’ and we do not diminish the considerable efforts made by the board in this case. But these difficulties do not limit the board’s responsibility to create a constitutionally compliant redistricting plan, not do they ‘absolve this court of its duty to independently measure each district against constitutional standards.”’
The board’s executive director, Taylor Bickford, said the board was still reviewing the decision and awaiting a legal analysis of it.
“Supreme Court review is an important part of the redistricting process in Alaska, as competing legal requirements and significant demographic challenges create an extraordinarily difficult juggling act for the board,” Bickford said in a statement. “Our goal has always been to adopt a final plan that will serve the best interests of all Alaskans, and we believe that today’s order will help us accomplish that goal.”
The redistricting board spent months last year devising a plan and drawing new lines based on 2010 Census results. It needed at least nine districts in which a Native or Native-backed candidate was likely to be elected to maintain the seats held by those candidates after the 2000 redistricting. Under the federal voting rights law, the plan cannot weaken the Alaska Native community’s ability to elect candidates of their choosing.
The plan won preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department last fall. The board has acknowledged that its greatest challenge was ensuring that the voice of Alaska Natives was protected in the political process.
Last month, Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy ruled that the Alaska Redistricting Board redraw three Fairbanks-area House districts and another in the Aleutian chain. McConahy determined that House Districts 1, 2, 37 and 38 are unconstitutional as drawn. House Districts 1, 2 and 38 are in the Fairbanks area, with 1 and 2 urban districts and 38 parts urban and rural, stretching from Fairbanks 400 miles west to the Bering Sea. House District 37 splits the Aleutian chain.
In his order, McConahy found House Districts 1 and 2 are not compact, and that no Voting Rights Act justification had been offered for deviating from that constitutional requirement in District 2. He said House District 37 violated constitutional requirements for compactness and contiguity. House District 38 violated the constitutional requirement of socio-economic integration, he ruled.
The board and plaintiffs, Fairbanks-area residents George Riley and Ron Dearborn, each made partial appeals. The board challenged McConahy’s decision on House Districts 37 and 38, and the plaintiffs argued, among other things, that McConahy erred in not invalidating the entire plan.
The board did not contest McConahy’s ruling on House Districts 1 and 2 and planned to address those.
The Supreme Court, in its decision, said that if the board is unable to draft a plan that complies with its order in time for this year’s elections, it can petition for an order that the elections be conducted under the plan as an interim plan. In that case, the court said it would expect the plan to be modified to address House Districts 1 and 2.