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New Alaska District Maps Fail to Pass Muster

(CN) - For a third time, the Alaska Supreme Court emphasized deference to state law while nixing the latest congressional district lines.

Alaska's redistricting board began redrawing congressional districts in 2011 after receiving data from the 2010 U.S. Census. A federal voting rights expert urged the board to draw district boundaries with a focus on creating "effective" Native districts that give Natives the ability to elect candidates of their own choosing.

But when this map led to a slew of lawsuits, a Fairbanks superior court judge threw it out and found that four of the proposed House districts unnecessarily deviated from state constitutional requirements.

The Alaska Supreme Court upheld that decision last March and ordered the board to design its reapportionment plan based on requirements of the state constitution and then test the plan against the Voting Rights Act (VRA) rather than the reverse.

That process - which the Alaska Supreme Court laid out in the 1992 decision Hickel v. Southeast Conference - provides the board "with defined procedural steps that, when followed, ensure redistricting satisfies federal law without doing unnecessary violence to the Alaska constitution," according to the court's decision last year.

Though an interim redistricting plan took effect for the 2012 elections in November, the court ordered the board to follow the Hickel process in its future deliberations.

The board then used what it termed a "Hickel template" that kept unchallenged districts from its original plan and created four new maps, finally testing them for state constitutional compliance - again reversing the steps laid out in Hickel.

Though a superior court judge required the board to make district-by-district findings of adherence to the state's constitution or to submit a plan to the state court at each stage of drafting, a close majority of the Alaska Supreme Court reversed Friday.

"The board claims that it has followed our instructions to use the Hickel process upon remand and asks us to approve its amended proclamation plan as the final redistricting plan," Justice Walter Carpeneti wrote for the court. "But it is undisputed that the board began formulating its original proclamation plan by focusing exclusively on race and creating the correct number of effective Native districts. Thus, upon remand, the board was instructed to consider the requirements of the Alaska Constitution first when constructing districts. However, what the board actually did upon remand was to create a Hickel template that maintained the boundaries of unchallenged districts from the original proclamation plan, resulting in 36 unchanged house districts. The board asserts that these districts 'were drawn with only the Alaska Constitution in mind' and thus they complied with the Hickel process."

Carpeneti continued: "We agree with the superior court that Hickel and our order mandated that the initial map drawn by the board should not be affected by VRA considerations in any way, and therefore, the board's amended proclamation plan was noncompliant. We have already held that the board began drawing its original proclamation plan by creating VRA-compliant districts, a process that necessarily affected the contours of the entire map. By adopting districts affected by the board's initial VRA considerations, the Board's Hickel template limited its available options."

The board "painted itself into a corner" by leaving only a few blank areas on the redistricting map, which left them with few options to achieve maximum constitutional compliance, according to the ruling.

"Moreover, when the board first created these 36 districts, it did so in order to comply with the VRA; this is a clear violation of Hickel's plain language," Carpeneti wrote. "Although these districts went unchallenged, that does not change the fact that they were drawn with VRA considerations as the first priority. We do not know if these districts will meet the Alaska Constitution's requirements of compactness, contiguity, and socio-economic integration, but they were not drawn with this purpose as the primary consideration. Without a plan that does so, it is impossible to measure if deviations from Alaska constitutional requirements were necessary." (13)

In a partial dissent, Justices Daniel Winfree and Craig Stowers defended the requirement for district-by-district findings of adherence to the state constitution.

"Having twice failed to follow the Hickel process, the board should be required to make findings allowing appropriate judicial review of its determinations," Winfree wrote. "[W]hether a redistricting plan ultimately complies with the Alaska Constitution is not a question of fact; it is a question of law subject to independent review by the judiciary."

Senior Justice Warren Matthews penned a separate dissent nearly twice the length of the court's opinion that called the board's approach "practical and reasonable."

"The premise of the majority's opinion is that the board unduly limited its ability to craft a Hickel plan by starting with the Hickel template," Matthews wrote, joined by Justice Dana Fabe. "Today's opinion refers to the board's actions as 'leaving only a few blank areas on the map.' The template left blank a huge contiguous area that constitutes more than half the land mass of the State of Alaska. Within this Texas-sized area the board obviously had numerous redistricting options."

The dissent continues: "Thus, the Hickel template, the structure chosen by the board, did not limit the board's ability to consider alternative plans. We can say this with confidence, because the board in fact considered alternative plans that were not constrained by the template."

"Today's opinion sends the redistricting process mandated as a result of the 2010 census back to ground zero," Matthews added. "Much new litigation, by new parties as well as those already before us will result. All the disruptions of redistricting that are necessarily endured every ten years will be repeated in the next two."


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