Previewing the redistricting trial's date with the Alaska Supreme Court
Let's break down the main issues at hand. And in non-redistricting news, the House passes campaign contribution limits.
Good evening, Alaska!
In this edition: The Alaska Redistricting trial has its day in front of the Alaska Supreme Court on Friday, here’s how to follow along; And an explainer of the key underlying issue in the trial: The entire case really revolves around the “hard look” standard that, if affirmed, would elevate public testimony’s role in the public process; While the Superior Court found that standard wasn’t met in East Anchorage’s senate pairings or Skagway’s house district, it did find that it was met in Valdez, which is being challenged by Mat-Su and Valdez; That case tangentially gets into whether ANSCA boundaries should play a role in the case, which is part of the Calista Corporation’s appeal; and, finally, the House votes on campaign contribution limits.
Spice level: 📖
Legislative day: 59
Alaska Redistricting trial preview
The Alaska Supreme Court is set to hear the appeals in the Alaska Redistricting trial this Friday morning, challenging and defending various elements of Judge Thomas Matthews’ decision on this decade’s redistricting cycle. The case will decide whether the maps produced by the Alaska Redistricting Board should stand for the next decade, whether they should be redrawn to Matthews’ standards or whether they should be redrawn by a whole different set of standards missed by the lower court.
Its schedule is as follows and the briefings will be broadcast and archived on Gavel Alaska (Like always, I’ll also be live-tweeting the arguments):
9:00AM – 10:00AM: Alaska Redistricting Board’s petition for review regarding Senate District K. 30 minutes per side: Redistricting Board and East Anchorage Plaintiffs.
10:15AM– 11:15AM: Alaska Redistricting Board’s petition for review regarding House District 3 and Municipality of Skagway’s petition for review regarding House Districts 3 & 4. 30 minutes per side: Redistricting Board and Municipality of Skagway.
11:30AM–12:50PM: Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s & City of Valdez’s petitions for review regarding House Districts 29, 30, and 36. 40 minutes total for the Borough & City (20 min each, absent different agreement); 40 minutes total for Redistricting Board, Doyon Intervenors, and Calista Parties to divide by agreement.
All the court filings and briefings that this preview is based on the filings posted the Alaska Appellate Courts’ website.
The ‘hard look’ standard - East Anchorage/Skagway
There’s a load of different issues that are being challenged by just about everyone, but the main issue at the heart of the case is Judge Matthews’ application of the “hard look” standard to the Alaska Redistricting Board’s processes. This “hard look” standard comes from federal law and the essential idea as it applies to redistricting is that public testimony should carry some weight in the process and cannot be dismissed without justification. Basically, he found the board cannot let its own opinions and agenda override public testimony without a good reason for it. Judge Matthews found that the board failed that standard when it came to the East Anchorage Senate pairings—which saw the area cracked to create a safely Republican seat—and in Skagway/Juneau districts. He ruled that, on the other hand, the board had taken a “hard look” at where to place Valdez before ultimately placing it with the Mat-Su Borough.
In filings from the Alaska Redistricting Board, the board counters there’s not a legal basis for this and that the Alaska Constitution’s requirement to take public testimony does not translate to any requirement that the board heed it. The board argues that its members should have broad leeway to drive their decisions with their own judgement in the case, arguing that the required regional diversity for the board’s membership serves as a check on their decisions. The board argues that if let stand, it would create a situation where public testimony would become a high-stakes political battle that would unnecessarily bind the board’s flexibility.
What’s important to note, again, is that Judge Matthews is not actually requiring that they listen to public testimony. He’s just requiring that they justify it in the event it doesn’t align with the personal goals of the board members. It’s also worth pointing out that this idea of a “hard look” isn’t an entirely novel concept and is, as I understand it, to be a pretty common piece of how federal regulatory decisions are litigated. One person who’s been following the case said if a federal regulator had acted the way the Alaska Redistricting Board members have, they’d be, well, pretty dang happy about it.
This is more or less the point that’s made by the East Anchorage plaintiffs, who find themselves in the position of defending Judge Matthews’ ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.
“If the board was free to disregard such testimony with abandon, this constitutional provision would be meaningless. The federal precedent to which Judge Matthews cites is instructive in terms of the weight of the board, as an administrative body, is required to give public testimony to satisfy the ‘hard look’ standard,” argues the East Anchorage ruling. “The trial court committed no error in looking to this analogous precedent for guidance in interpreting binding principles from this court.”
The brief goes onto argue that the whole point of the “hard look” standard is to ensure that whatever decision produced by the board is not “unfair, irrational or arbitrary” and says that Judge Matthews properly found that the decisions made in East Anchorage were, in fact, arbitrary and irrational. The order then starts to fan out to the several other legal issues raised in Judge Matthews’ ruling that found the Alaska Redistricting Board violated its process, ran afoul of the Open Meetings Act and approached the process with bias. The board, for its part, disputes these points.
The question of “why this all maters” is really answered well by an amicus filing headlined by the Alaska Black Caucus that raises issues around the board’s handling of equal protection clause by splitting East Anchorage. They argue that equal protections and the concept of one person one votes means people have the right to have their vote is equally meaningful. They argue that the board should’ve kept that in mind, especially when Board Member Melanie Bahnke had a proposal that would’ve allowed both East Anchorage and Eagle Rivers have an equally meaningful vote.
“While the board is entitled to choose between two equally justifiable pairings, no case insulates a pairing that impairs the interest of one geographic group in having an equally meaningful vote, when an alternative exists that does not impair the interests of anyone,” explained the briefing.
It goes on to urge the Alaska Redistricting Board to support keeping them together.
“An East Anchorage senate district formed from the two Muldoon house districts would be a swing district, with no guarantee that the next senator would be a Democrat rather than a Republican. But this pairing would guarantee that the votes of East Anchorage would matter,” argues the filing. “Voters could elect a senator who resides in the community, who understands its concerns, and who does not need to compromise those concerns in order also to protect the interest of voters in the other half of a district with very different needs.”
Skagway says it was right on other grounds
Skagway ostensibly got what it wanted from Judge Matthews’ ruling, which found the pairing of Skagway with the Mendenhall Valley portion of Juneau rather than the more progressive downtown Juneau should be revisited to take into account the strong public testimony favoring the reverse. Recall, however, that the board under the “hard look” standard can still ignore the testimony if it at shows some effort to accommodate public testimony before ignoring it. And Judge Matthews did find that the board’s maps would have passed constitutional muster save for this “hard look” standard being applied. So, that’s why Skagway is now appealing to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing that the maps should have been disqualified for not meeting the constitutional standard of socioeconomic integration.
Like many others, they’re also arguing a litany of process violations that include Open Meeting Act violations.
The Mat-Su Borough/Valdez problem
While the Mat-Su Borough and Valdez aren’t perfectly aligned in their complaints about the Alaska Redistricting Board, they both agree that the board was wrong to lump the two together into a shared House district. Like with East Anchorage and Skagway, they’ve also mustered a fair amount of testimony and evidence that their pairings don’t share a strong connection and should be paired in other ways. The problem is that Judge Matthews found the Alaska Redistricting Board at the very least did take its “hard look” at other alternatives and found the rest more problematic in other parts of the state. That’s what also makes this case particularly difficult. While accommodating the public testimony on the East Anchorage pairings and Skagway maps can be done with little disturbances in the rest of the map, the changes needed to accommodate Valdez would create huge ripple effects elsewhere. This drew to the lawsuit, an intervenor coalition led by Doyon, Limited, in defense of the board’s plan.
In the bigger picture, the key issue is whether or not ANCSA region boundaries ought to carry weight in terms of maps in unorganized parts of the state. This is a relatively novel concept for a process that has greatly preferred non-Alaska Native government structures over Alaska Natives. It’s been a largely under-remarked upon piece of the Alaska Redistricting Board, but they’ve given far more preference to Alaska Native groups than previous maps. The Interior house district that Valdez wants into also houses the entirety of the Doyon, Limited region and the Ahtna, Inc., region for the first time in at least several cycles. Judge Matthews found these regional boundaries ought to carry weight in the process, which is the second major bit of precedent that would emerge from this case along with the “hard look” standard.
Like others, the case also brings up violations of the Hickel Process and the Open Meetings Act.
Calista Corporation and ANSCA boundaries
The Calista Corporation’s appeal is interesting because it’s specifically seeking clarity on the role of ANSCA region boundaries in the redistricting process. The board adhered to them when drawing the Interior region district, which has been a major issue in the Valdez case. It didn’t follow them to the same extent when drawing maps around the Calista Corporation region in western Alaska, which was the root of the Calista Corporation’s initial challenge. But it’s not appealing the decision on the maps, but is participating in order to defend peripheral decisions that found:
“First, the strong socioeconomic integration of the Calista Region, including the strong ties between Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Chevak, and Bethel;
“And second, that the Alaska Redistricting Board must make efforts to keep those villages and the region together”
The filing argues that establishing these two issues is important for the long-term interests of the region and are not worth risking on an appeal. It’s also seeking clarity from the Alaska Supreme Court on the position that ANSCA region boundaries should play in future redistricting efforts, arguing they should carry weight with the board because they are good indicators of socioeconomic connection just as the non-Alaska Native governments have long enjoyed in the process.
The Alaska Supreme Court is expected to have a decision by April 1. That would give the Alaska Redistricting Board less than a month to redraw its maps in order to update its maps to reflect the ruling. Like in 2012, the board may argue that this is an impossible task, and the court may give them some lenience for the extent of its changes. In 2012, the elections were conducted with an interim map before a final map was produced for the 2014 elections.
Campaign contribution limits pass House, but GOP opposition likely dooms them for 2022
In a late-night vote on Wednesday, the Alaska House narrowly voted to approve legislation reinstating limits on campaign contributions. The measure comes after voter-approved limits, which had passed by a huge margin in the early 2000s, were narrowly struck down by the courts last year and campaign regulators narrowly refused to enact on their own.
The vote was 21-18 with every single non-majority Republican voting no. Their opposition, combined with reluctance in the Senate, means it’ll be a tough path to enacting campaign contribution limits in time for the 2022 elections. That’s good news for Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has already voiced support for limitless contributions and has reportedly been soliciting large contributions.
Republican opposition would make overriding a potential veto near-impossible. Veto overrides require 40 votes from the entire Legislature, meaning the measure would need to pass with the support of all but one Senator to have the votes needed for an override. Dunleavy and allies are likely hoping that the measure will never reach the governor’s desk, sparing him from having to take such an action.
Much of that was clear going into Wednesday night, but members of the majority House Coalition argued it’s important to put the issue on the record. They noted that 73% of Alaskans voted in favor of the ballot initiative that limited political contributions to candidates to $500 per year and said the legislation reflects the voters’ desire to keep a tight limit on money while respecting the ruling of the court. They also argued that campaign contribution limits can help limit the influence of money and corruption in Alaska.
House Bill 234 by Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, would put a $2,000 limit on how much individuals can contribute to candidates during the election cycle, a shifting from the per-year limit. It would also limit fundraising from non-Alaskans to 25% of a campaign’s total fundraising.
“We should be able to run even more effective campaigns and still limit the toxic, corrosive element that’s corruption,” Schrage said in closing about the bill. “This bill might not be perfect and there might be legitimate concerns out there and we might be able to go further with this bill but let’s not stop it here tonight. Let’s keep it going, let’s work with our senators to make this bill better. Let’s all go back to our districts and say we made an effort to limit that out-of-state money and stand up for our state.”
The legislation would set the following limits, moving from a per-year limit to a per-election cycle:
$2,000 limit on contributions from individuals to single candidates
$4,000 limit on contributions from individuals to joint gubernatorial campaigns
$5,000 limit on contributions from individuals to political parties or other election groups
$4,000 limit on contributions from non-political party groups to individuals
$8,000 limit on contributions from groups joint gubernatorial campaigns
Republicans found a litany of reasons to oppose the legislation. They argued it was an infringement on their Free Speech, argued that the limits would somehow encourage corruption, said unlimited money was needed because social media companies were censoring them, complained about union participation in elections, harped on the ranked-choice voting system approved by voters, dismissed the possibility that corruption is an issue (needing to be remined about the whole VECO scandal) and whined that the limits were too low after not offering any amendments to raise them.
The legislation now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Without a clear path through the Legislature and governor, the only sure-fire way to reinstate campaign contribution limits would be through a voter initiative.