The Alaska Supreme Court tossed out the Alaska Redistricting Board’s latest redistricting plan for the state Friday, rejecting it on the same grounds as previous versions: failing to sufficiently follow the state Constitution in an attempt to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act.
Friday’s decision (PDF) remands the plan to the board, to be redrafted in accordance with procedures laid out in Hickel v. Southeast Conference, a 1992 redistricting case. The court rejected a previous plan on the same grounds in a March 14 decision, and Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Michael P. McConahy threw out the board’s revised plan in an April 20 ruling.
With the 2012 elections imminent, the court rejected the revised plan in May, but later the same month approved the use of an amended plan in the elections pending completion of its full review. Several passages of the new decision, however, show that the board’s repeated failure to comply with the Hickel decision’s requirements weighed against it.
“In our (March 14) order, we explicitly stated that reasons of difficulty or expediency do not justify deviating from the requirements of the Alaska Constitution,” the court wrote in its Friday ruling. “Consequently, the Board was ordered to follow the Hickel process upon remand.”
Much of Friday’s decision hinged upon the board’s choice not to change 36 of the state’s 40 House districts, which weren’t specifically challenged in previous cases. While the board considered them a “Hickel template” safe for reuse, the court held that they were unconstitutional under state law because they were initially drawn to comply with federal requirements in the VRA.
“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,” the court wrote Friday. “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.”
In addition, the court found that the board wasn’t required to make individual findings about the constitutionality of each House district, reversing a requirement in the Superior Court ruling that it do so. It also reversed the lower court’s order that the board submit redistricting plans to a judge at each stage of redrafting.
The supreme court declared moot another claim by the board, challenging Superior Court findings that some of its changes deviating from the state Constitution weren’t necessary to comply with the VRA, since the districts weren’t drafted in compliance with the Hickel process and will now be redrawn.
In a dissenting opinion, retired Justice Warren Matthews -- who replaced Justice Morgan Christen in hearing the case when she joined the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- and Justice Dana Fabe called the board’s approach to the Amended Proclamation Plan “practical and reasonable.”
Matthews and Fabe noted the conflicting pressures placed on the board by the state Constitution and the VRA, saying the changes to the affected districts resulted in an overall deviation of 8.93 percent from their original designs and that the resulting districts are constitutional under state law. They also said remanding the plan to the board would make it start over from scratch, rather than using the unchallenged districts as it did to build on its previous work.
“Rather than force a return to the point of beginning, I think we should take the next logical step in this litigation and determine whether the Board’s Hickel plan was based on the requirements of the Alaska Constitution,” Matthews and Fabe wrote.
In a partial dissent, Justices Daniel E. Winfree and Craig Stowers agreed with the majority’s other decisions but dissented on the point that the board isn’t required to make district-by-district findings, saying that a given redistricting plan’s compliance with the state Constitution is a question of law subject to judicial review.
“Having twice failed to follow the Hickel process, the Board should be required to make findings allowing appropriate judicial review of its determinations,” Winfree and Stowers wrote.
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