WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, April 21, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled explicitly for the first time that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution. This landmark ruling arises from a consolidated lawsuit challenging the state’s legislative districts drawn with 2020 census data. Notably, Alaska has nested legislative districts, meaning that each state Senate district is composed of two adjacent state House districts. Back in December 2021, five separate groups filed legal challenges — which were ultimately consolidated into one case — to the state’s legislative redistricting plan that was approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board (hereafter the Board) in November 2021.
Following a trial held in January 2021, an Alaska court held that the Board’s enacted redistricting plan violated multiple provisions of the state constitution, finding that certain distinct communities were unnecessarily grouped together and the Board did not follow public testimony and hearing guidelines; subsequently, the trial court remanded the redistricting process back to the Board to address these issues. Four separate parties appealed the trial court’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, which reversed the trial court’s ruling regarding three state House districts, but affirmed the trial court’s determination that the “Board’s Senate K pairing of house districts constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution.” Following this order and further court proceedings over the Board’s amended plan, the Board ultimately adopted a court-approved interim plan for the state’s 2022 legislative elections, which the Alaska Supreme Court found to be constitutionally compliant.
In today’s opinion accompanying its previous order on the Board’s originally enacted plan, the court provided its full explanation as to why the trial court “correctly concluded” that the state Senate plan is “unconstitutional due to geographic and partisan gerrymandering.” The court’s majority emphatically stated that there is “ample evidence of regional and political partisanship in this case” since under the Board’s original plan, Senate District K — which was was composed of one Democratic and one Republican state House district — disproportionately favored voters in the Republican district (Eagle River) while diluting voters’ representation in the racially diverse, Democratic district (South Muldoon).
“Considering the Constitutional Convention minutes, the 1999 amendments’ legislative history, and our case law, we expressly recognize that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional under the Alaska Constitution,” the opinion stated. This groundbreaking opinion is the first time the Alaska Supreme Court explicitly held that partisan gerrymandering violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Alaska Constitution, according to Scott Kendall, who served as former independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s chief of staff.
Following this decision, the trial court will oversee further proceedings by the Board, which has 90 days to decide whether to adopt the interim plan that was used in the 2022 elections as a final plan or to alternatively devise a new plan. The opinion also noted that if the Board opts for the latter, any legal challenges to the Board’s new plan may be filed at the trial court level.