A speedbump on the way to the Supreme Court
Finally. We can get back to the legislative session which [checks notes] is happening.
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: The main event of the Alaska Redistricting trial wrapped up today, marking the end of two weeks plus one day of witness testimony from the five cases challenging the maps created by the Alaska Redistricting Board. It’s been a draining experience, so today’s edition will be a short one that touches on some of the key takeaways from the last few days. Also, weekend watching.
Coming up next time: Let’s get back to whatever’s going on with the Legislature.
Just a speedbump
“I’m just a speedbump on the way to the Supreme Court,” said Judge Thomas Matthews during a bit of housekeeping today, echoing the words of a Superior Court judge from a previous round of redistricting litigation. It’s a frank acknowledgement that helps guide us we on how should be thinking about litigation at this stage of the process and as it moves forward. Whatever way Judge Matthews rules on the five challenges brought by East Anchorage, Mat-Su, Valdez, Calista Corporation and Skagway against the maps produced by the Alaska Redistricting Board will be far from final. From the get-go, Matthews’ goal here is to essentially serve as the place to generate a clear and as complete a record as the rules of litigation allow. It’s a step in a process that everyone has expected will end in front of the state’s five justices.
The litigants will be in front of the court one more time, for closing oral arguments on Feb. 11, and then Matthews will be charged with developing a decision to hand over to the Alaska Supreme Court on Feb. 15.
Follow the thread: Day 11 of the Alaska Redistricting Trial
On the air: I got to chat with KHNS’s Mike Swasey about the trial and its impacts on the region.
As we wrap up things at this stage, I wanted to highlight a two key points from the last few days:
Inconsistent standards. As I wrote about in yesterday’s newsletter, the Skagway case became much more interesting on Thursday with more concrete discussions about the socioeconomic connections between the city and the Downtown Juneau district that we’ve seen throughout the course of the rest of the trial. The issue of socioeconomic integration is one of those tricky, eye-of-the-beholder metrics that doesn’t have a clear and easily measurable definition. This is a problem with all of requirements laid out by the Alaska Constitution that has dogged the Redistricting Board from the get-go. How do you measure one community’s connection to another? How do you know when a district is compact? Even the issue of contiguity, which you would think would be cut-and-dry, has been argued before the Alaska Supreme Court in prior rounds. The one measurable factor of population is specifically given the least priority in the process, with direction for the board to prioritize the other three factors over it.
But even then, how do we balance the compactness of one district against another? How do we weigh socioeconomic integration of one district against its compactness?
Robin Brena, who’s representing both Skagway and Valdez in their complaints, argues that the board has, at the very least, been inconsistent in how it approaches these decisions. In the case of Valdez’s legal challenges, the board has argued that the relative socioeconomic integration of the huge House District 36 trumped compactness when it created a horseshoe district that wraps around the Fairbanks and Denali boroughs. Meanwhile, in the Skagway’s legal challenges board member Budd Simpson seemingly ignored any socioeconomic connections in favor of what he argued was a more compact House district.
To make the point on both sides of the litigation, Brena presented this map that compares the board’s adopted district for Skagway against the alternatives drawn by his expert witness, Kimball Brace, and against the massive House District 36 that’s at issue in the Mat-Su/Valdez case:
Both Brace and Brena argue that this map—which seemed to baffle Simpson because the house districts were drawn over the Kenai Peninsula simply as a means of comparison—is evidence that the board has inconsistently applied Alaska Constitution’s guidelines for redistricting. In what were quite literally Brena’s final minutes to question witnesses (he finished with all but four minutes of his allotted six-and-a-half-hours used), he asked Brace if it was his opinion if the board had been consistent with its application of compactness.
“No, I don't see that they've done that at all,” Brace said. “There's lots of different ways that they showed compactness is less important—Cantwell's one example, Fairbanks is another. You've got lots of different examples where compactness was not really taken into account.”
He said the same went for economic integration.
While much of these metrics are, as Brace said during the trial, in the eye of the beholder, the inconsistent application is readily apparent.
Conflicts of interest. The Skagway case was also the clearest when it came to putting the potential conflicts of interest that run throughout the redistricting process on display. I wrote about some of the conflicts raised with Simpson’s approach to the Juneau maps—that he’s a Republican, that he has a GOP connection with the sole Skagway resident advocating for the way the maps were eventually drawn and that his support of the Juneau Road—in yesterday’s newsletter, but it should also be highlighted that Brena zeroed in on the involvement of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s legal counsel Matt Singer with several of the interested parties. He’s got work with the Mat-Su Borough and the Calista Corporation (which are both suing the board) as well as Ahtna, Inc. (which is intervening along with Doyon in defense of the board’s plan). These relationships formed a great deal of the Thursday’s questioning of Simpson, who sat in on the board’s review of law offices.
While Singer and Simpson waved away the accusations as unfounded, with Singer at one point saying that he’s been accused of everything but being mean to puppies, there’s been some significant questions raised. For example, during the vetting process it wasn’t entirely clear whether the board even knew that Singer was actively involved with Ahtna in several cases before the courts. In another example, the board has yet been unable to produce the signed version of a conflict-of-interest form.
When asked about the Ahtna, Inc., relationship, Simpson said it was “not a big deal” and noted that Ahtna’s happy with the maps.
It’s unclear what, if any, weight this would carry at the end of the day, but it certainly raises more questions than it answers.
In the last few weeks, I’ve fallen completely in love with the new show “Abbott Elementary.” Set in an underfunded Philadelphia elementary school, it’s an utterly sincere and relatable show where each episode seems to end up with some kind of advice that we should all take to heart. In a time where things feel particularly contentious and miserable, I think it’s something we all need. You can watch it on ABC or Hulu. Here’s the trailer and a scene from the first episode where you can get a feel for the cast:
Also, Principal Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James, is just absolutely hilarious.
Have a nice, restoring weekend y’all.