Redistricting trial ends after three weeks

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Redistricting Board crumpled under the pressure of lobbyists and special interest groups when assigned the difficult task of coming up with a new statewide voting map, a lawyer said Friday.

''When faced with the pressure cooker that is redistricting ... this board was unable or unwilling to meet the requirements of constitutional law,'' said plaintiffs' lawyer Michael White at the end of a three-week trial in Superior Court in Anchorage.

The redistricting map, approved by the board on a 3-2 vote, is facing nine legal challenges. Plaintiffs allege the 40-district map not only fails to satisfy state constitutional requirements that districts be compact, of equal population and integrated socially and economically, but is blatantly partisan because it pits 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the 2002 election.

Judge Mark Rindner, who heard from 63 witnesses, said he will forward his decision to the Alaska Supreme Court on the Feb. 1 deadline.

White encouraged the judge to consider whether the board gave ''reasonable discretion'' to the facts and issues surrounding the case.

He asked Rindner to look at the ''danger signals'' revealed during the trial, in particular to review the testimony of board member Julian Mason, who said he realized that the five-member board would not be able to agree on a plan of its own and would need help from outside groups.

White reminded Rindner that the plan the board accepted -- one put forth by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting -- was approved June 9, just two days after the board received it and leaving no time for public review.

During the trial, Mason testified he met with AFFR representatives late in the mapping process and engaged in remapping some problem areas. The reworked map, called the Full Representation Plan, was the one the board approved. The AFFR, whose members are mostly Democrats, is a coalition consisting of Alaska Natives, environmental groups and labor groups.

Jeff Feldman, a lawyer for the board, told Rindner that his biggest fear during the lengthy trial is that the plaintiffs would come up with a better plan.

''Plaintiffs never came up with a plan that would solve all these problems,'' he said. ''That never happened.''

Philip Volland, another lawyer representing the board, reminded the judge that the board heard from more than 400 people while visiting more than 20 Alaska communities.

He said each decision the board made, beginning with taking population from Cordova to add to the Southeast Alaska district, affected the next one. It was impossible to keep everyone happy, he said.

''They had to somehow come up with a deal three people would agree to,'' Volland said.

The map is being sued on a variety of fronts. One is the linkage of Valdez to Anchorage instead of combining the city with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to the north.

Plaintiffs say Valdez and Anchorage do not have enough in common socially and economically to meet state constitutional requirements.

Bill Walker, a lawyer for Valdez, told Rindner that Valdez was used simply to get Anchorage another House seat.

''Valdez was clearly a political pawn in this process, valued only for its population,'' he said.

Volland said when it came to Anchorage the board was in a no-win situation.

''Here, the board faced litigation no matter what it did,'' he said.

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