Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alaska Supreme Court Hears Redistricting Board Petitions

This John Hoover otter, part of a larger carving, which greeted me  as I got off the elevator on the Fifth floor to go to the Supreme Court, looks a bit the way I feel as I try to figure out how to deal with all my notes from today.

I have lots of reactions, but I haven't had time to review the notes and organize my thoughts into more than rambling yet.

Some specific things I observed:
  • Plaintiff Michael Walleri opened at 1:30 with a clear and polished delivery.
  • Retired Supreme Court Justice Warren Matthews joined the four sitting justices (Justice Morgan Christian has departed to take a seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
  • Both parties to the case said they didn't know Justice Matthews was going to be there until he walked out.  Some speculated he was there because of his experience with the 1990 and 2000 redistricting cases.
  • The justices actively asked questions of both attorneys and to my untrained ears (this was my first time attending a Supreme Court case) they seemed to need more justification from the Redistricting Board's attorney, Michael White, than from Walleri.  
  • (l-r) Justices Winfree, Matthews, Carpeneti, Fabe, Stowers
  • The justices seemed to have detailed knowledge of the legal precedents (three justices had been on previous redistricting cases) - particularly the Alaska Supreme Court cases - but I couldn't help but wonder how well they could assess from the record the attorneys' claims about possibility of meeting both the Voting Rights Act requirements and the Alaska Constitutional requirements.  
  • While both sides were initially given 45 minutes, with questioning from the justices, things stretched out and the court was adjourned about 3:20. 
  • Board's attorney White asked the Justices, should the not overturn the trial judge's ruling on districts 37 and 38 to give the board instructions because they were at a loss as to how to do that without making things worse.  
  • Both sides seemed to believe there would be a decision in ten days or less and the case would be remanded to the trial court.  

Each side focused on the parts of Judge McConahy's decision that rejected their arguments.  The Board accepted the need to redraw districts 1 and 2 in Fairbanks, but vigorously objected to the finding that required redrawing districts 37 and 38.
Michael Walleri address the court

The plaintiffs argued that splitting the City of Fairbank's two districts into separate Senate seats violated the proportionality requirement.

Most of the focus, it seemed to me, was on house districts 37 and 38. 

A basic issue throughout the whole redistricting process has been whether it was possible to meet both the  federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) requirements AND the Alaska Constitutional requirements. There was a lot of questioning about whether the board should have first made the plan comply with the Alaska Constitution and then, make variances (to the constitution) as necessary to comply with the VRA.  The Board's attorney White, vigorously argued that it was impossible  to meet both standards and starting with the state requirements would just be spinning your wheels.
Michael White addresses the court

There was also questioning on whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) really would have rejected a draft plan that met the constitutional requirements but paired native Senator Hoffman of Bethel with Senate President Stevens (non-native).  Walleri argued that if they truly had a native effective district, then it was Stevens, not Hoffman, whose seat would have been in danger.  After White repeated that the DOJ had been focused on whether native incumbents were paired, he was asked by Justice Matthews if they distinguished between pairing two native incumbents and a native and non-native pairing. 

Was the Board required to first make a plan that met the Alaska Constitutional requirements and then, if necessary, make variances as needed to also meet the VRA?
Even if they had to make variances to a plan that met constitutional requirements, wouldn't that plan at least then serve as a benchmark to see that variances were necessary?
Why did the Board begin with the VRA requirements instead of the Alaska Constitutional requirements?

 I've written more than I expected and there are still many points I've left out.  For those who have trouble sleeping, I'll attach my notes from the courtroom.

As usual, there's this WARNING:  the notes are my feeble attempt to capture what was said.  They are NOT at all transcripts, but they're what you'll have to make do with until transcripts are available.

Alaska Supreme Court Redistricting Board Case March 13, 2012

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