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Alaska Supreme Court orders use of interim map for elections

May 25, 2022 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Supreme Court said Tuesday it has affirmed a lower court ruling that the board tasked with redrawing the state’s political boundaries “again engaged in unconstitutional political gerrymandering” and ordered the use of a new map for this year’s elections.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews in his ruling last week said it appeared that the majority of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s members had adopted a map splitting the Eagle River area into two Senate districts for “political reasons.”

The map that Matthews ordered the board to adopt in part pairs the Eagle River area House districts into a Senate district. It was the other option the board had considered when it was weighing revisions following a prior order by the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed Matthews’ order for the adoption of the map for this year’s elections.

The decision came ahead of the June 1 filing deadline for the August primary and followed a second round of challenges to the board’s work.

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Peter Torkelson, the board’s executive director, said the board appreciated the court’s “swift guidance.” The board met later Tuesday to adopt the map.

The Supreme Court earlier this year found constitutional issues with elements of a map drawn by the board last fall. In one instance, the court ruled that a state Senate district pairing part of east Anchorage and the Eagle River area constituted an “unconstitutional political gerrymander.”

The five-member board then returned to work. The revised plan it adopted in a 3-2 vote last month prompted challenges that focused on the board’s decision to link part of the Eagle River area with south Anchorage and Girdwood for a Senate district and another part of the Eagle River area to an area that includes Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, also known as JBER, for another Senate district.

Matthews said he found that the board had “intentionally discriminated against the communities of Girdwood and South Anchorage in order to maximize senate representation for Eagle River and the Republican party.”

Attorneys for the board, in asking the Supreme Court to review Matthews’ decision, called his order a “rambling, unprincipled, result-oriented decision” and labeled it “the antithesis of deference to an independent constitutional entity.”

Board member Melanie Bahnke on Tuesday thanked in part the parties who had brought challenges in the latest round of litigation. Bahnke and board member Nicole Borromeo had opposed the board’s original plan last fall and the revised one advanced last month.

The court-ordered map was adopted unanimously Tuesday, though board member Bethany Marcum said she was concerned the plan would be unfair to voters on the military base.

Matthews, in his order last week, said that with the “time pressure” of the candidate filing deadline removed, the board should return to work on adopting a plan for the remainder of the decade.

The Alaska Supreme Court, however, said that provision would stay on hold. Redistricting plans are drawn using information for the census, which is held every 10 years.

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Matthew Singer, an attorney for the board, said he read that part of the Supreme Court’s order as the court directing the board to adopt a specific interim plan for this year “and that any other action should await further direction.”

Guidance around that stay order could come in a full opinion from the court, he said.