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Alaska Supreme Court clarifies ruling on drawing new districts

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Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:18 pm, Tue Apr 30, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Redistricting Board will have to draw a map in line with the state constitution, but its final plan doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatically different from the one that ended up in court, the Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed.

The court issued an order on April 24 in response to questions posed by the board regarding the process it was expected to use in the latest court-mandated revision of the redistricting map.

The order requires the board to first draw a map that complies with the Alaska Constitution before making changes to meet the federal Voting Rights Act that requires protection of Alaska Native voters. It’s a process that was set out by an earlier lawsuit and is known as the Hickel process.

The court had already found the board failed to comply with the Hickel process in rulings last year.

The latest ruling doesn’t mean the final map produced by a new Hickel plan process will yield wildly different results. In the same request it filed in April, the board asked if it was prohibited from using any boundaries used in the 2012 elections.

The court said no, “as long as the Board begins by constructing districts that meet the requirements of the Alaska Constitution — that is, as long as the Board follows the Hickel process — the fact that resulting district is the same as or similar to a previous district will not in and of itself preclude the new district from being approved.”

That work likely won’t begin until later this summer because the board is waiting to see the result of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit working its way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Shelby v. Holder could throw out elements of the Voting Rights Act that force the Alaska Redistricting Board to deviate from the state constitution.

The attorney for Fairbanks-area plaintiffs George Riley and Ron Dearborn called the board’s actions an attempt to delay work and limit the opportunity for judicial review.

“I think they’re dragging their heels. They need to draw a constitutional plan before they make changes. They can be doing that right now,” attorney Jason Gazewood said. “Then we’ve got the same problem again, and you don’t have time for a measured review by courts.”

In Fairbanks, House District 38 has been a source of much contention as the lawsuit has moved through the legal system. The district includes parts of Ester and the Goldstream Valley, the Denali Borough and a large swath of rural Alaska reaching to the Bering Sea.

The court ruled, last year, that the district failed to meet the Alaska constitutional standard of “compact territory” containing a “relatively integrated socio-economic area.”

The board justified the district because of the requirements for Alaska Native voting protections under the federal Voting Rights Act.

The result of redistricting could be seen in Juneau during the session, because many Democrats and moderate Republicans had been defeated in last fall’s election.

The Alaska Redistricting Board has been operating without a director since last year. A message was left for board Chairman John Torgerson, but he had did not replied as of late Monday.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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