Court battle begins over new state redistricting map

Posted: Tuesday, January 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A court battle began Monday over whether Alaska's new redistricting plan violates the state constitution.

The plan, which is based on new 2000 decennial Census figures, has been attacked by Republicans as blatantly partisan and by local governments which contend it ignores the realities of their people.

Opening arguments began before Anchorage Superior Judge Mark Rindner in a trial that is expected to last three weeks.

Michael D. White, attorney representing those challenging the map, said the new map fails to pass muster with the state's constitution requiring compact districts of equal population that are integrated socio-economically.

''The only real question ... is whether the Alaska constitution has any meaning,'' White said. ''It is the crucial question you must confront.''

The five-member Alaska Redistricting Board approved the 40-district map in June on a 3-2 vote.

Board members Vicki Otte, Julian Mason and Leona Okakok voted in favor of the plan. Otte and Mason were appointed by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles and Okakok was appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, herself a Knowles appointee.

Board members Michael Lessmeier and Bert Sharp, both Republican appointees, voted against the map, calling it blatantly partisan. The plan would pit 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the 2002 election.

The board is facing nine challenges to the new map.

Board Attorney Philip R. Volland said the map balanced shifts in the state's population with federal requirements.

Alaska is one of nine states with a history of voter discrimination that require U.S. Justice Department approval for any changes in their electoral practices.

The Justice Department ruled on October that the map preserves political representation of Alaska Natives.

The map maintains two Senate districts with a majority Native population and preserves one Senate district with at least 35 percent Native population.

''They made some difficult choices,'' Volland said.

One Senate District mixes Aleut commercial fishermen with Yupik subsistence communities along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The tribes have no historical or economic ties and are bitter rivals in the False Pass fishery, White said.

It is a similar story in a House district that pairs Wasilla and Palmer -- two towns closely tied to Anchorage and the Matanuska Susitna Borough -- with suburban Fairbanks, White said.

Instead the board chose to pair Anchorage with Valdez to form House District 32, a pairing that White said made a mockery of socio-economic considerations.

''It is impossible to defend,'' White said. ''Valdez is in fact the gateway of the Interior. The lifeblood of Valdez is the pipeline.''

Volland said many of the changes were necessary because of population shifts that saw gains in Anchorage and the Mat-Su region but losses elsewhere.

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