Judge finds no wrongdoing by state redistricting board

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Redistricting Board worked in good faith when it came up with a new district voting map for the state of Alaska, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday.

In his 102-page ruling, Judge Mark Rindner found that only two House districts -- 12 and 16 -- contained in the 40-district map violate the state constitution and need to be redrawn.

''Each board member made a good faith effort to adopt a constitutional plan,'' he wrote. ''Each board member exercised his or her independent judgment and was not unduly or improperly influenced by any other board member or any person or organization outside the board.''

Board lawyer Philip Volland said the judge's ruling, which came following a three-week trial in which he heard from 63 witnesses, was gratifying.

''I'm glad that finding was made. It rewards the board for their commitment and hard work,'' Volland said.

Lawyer Michael White said plaintiffs will appeal.

''Obviously, we don't agree with his conclusions,'' he said.

The map, approved by the five-member board last June, faced nine legal challenges. Plaintiffs included individuals, as well as the cities of Anchorage, Valdez, Wasilla, Cordova and Craig, and the Aleutians East and Lake and Peninsula boroughs.

Rindner previously found that House District 16 in Chugiak failed to meet state constitutional requirements because it was not compact. His ruling added House District 12, which includes part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and all of the Denali Borough. He found that district residents did not have enough in common socially and economically.

The state constitution requires that districts be compact, of equal population and socio-economically integrated.

''The Alaska Range is a substantial physical barrier that divides the northern and southern portions of House District 12. As a result, the evidence indicates that the district is divided in half ... The interaction between these two halves of the district is minimal,'' the judge wrote.

Former State Attorney General Charles Cole argued the case against the board's District 12. He accepted the case pro bono on behalf of a Fairbanks woman after the Fairbanks North Star Borough decided against joining the plaintiffs.

''I felt strongly that Fairbanks had not been treated fairly by the redistricting board,'' Cole said.

White said the judge's decision to find House District 12 unconstitutional will require extensive reworking of the map.

''They will have to redraw the state significantly because they have to fix that problem,'' he said. ''It affects everywhere from the Mat-Su to Fairbanks to Valdez.''

Volland said the district's central location may give the board some flexibility to spread the problem among adjoining districts.

Rindner rejected similar socio-economic arguments against linking Anchorage and Valdez in House District 32 and pairing Prince of Wales Island with Interior villages in Senate District C.

''There is significant evidence of socio-economic integration in House District 32,'' Rindner wrote, citing direct commercial jet service, regular ferry service and food and fuel shipments.

He found that compactness and socio-economic integration are not requirements for Senate districts.

Plaintiffs had alleged that the map was blatantly partisan because it pits 20 Republican incumbents against each other in the 2002 election, but no Democrats.

Rindner found no evidence of gerrymandering.

''The record in this case is devoid of evidence that the board's final plan has any discriminatory effect against the Republican Party,'' the judge wrote, pointing to testimony that said the plan preserves essentially the same number of seats for Republican legislators as the previous 1994 plan.

Board members Vicki Otte, Julian Mason and Leona Okakok voted June 9 in favor of the plan put forward by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a group comprised mostly of Democrats.

Otte and Mason were appointed by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles and Okakok was appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, also a Knowles appointee.

Board members Michael Lessmeier and Bert Sharp voted against the map. Lessmeier was appointed by House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage. Sharp was appointed by former Senate President Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage.

Lessmeier testified that certain board members had a secret agenda to get the plan approved. He said Okakok felt last-minute pressure to change her opposition to linking Valdez and Anchorage, a key part of the redistricting plan.

But Rindner found Okakok's own testimony that she was not pressured by anyone more compelling.

He also rejected arguments that the board was unduly influenced by AFFR representatives, which met privately with Mason just a few days before the map was approved.

''There is nothing improper with individual board members discussing the redistricting plans with members of the public,'' the judge wrote.

Rindner forwarded his ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court. The high court is expected to issue its ruling by April 1.

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