Alaska Supreme Court Strikes Down Gerrymandered Districts
In 2022, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a series of summary orders invalidating proposed districts for the state senate as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the Alaska Constitution. On April 21, the Alaska Supreme Court published a landmark opinion in In the Matter of the 2021 Redistricting Case explaining its reasoning. The decision makes clear that partisan gerrymandering claims can be adjudicated by Alaska courts and establishes unequivocally that such discrimination offends equal protection under the Alaska Constitution.
In the Matter of the 2021 Redistricting Cases adds to a growing number of state courts that have stepped up to provide recourse against gerrymandering. In addition to Alaska, state courts in Florida, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have invalidated gerrymandered maps under their state constitutions in recent years. These cases fill a void left by the federal judiciary after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering claims were nonjusticiable “political questions” under the U.S. Constitution.
Like many Western states, Alaska uses a commission to draw its legislative districts. The Alaska Redistricting Board is comprised of five members: two appointed by the governor, one by the state senate leader, one by the state house leader, and one by the chief justice of the state supreme court. Every decade, after the census, the board is convened to split the states into 40 state house districts that are then paired to create 20 state senate districts. Alaska’s constitution further imposes a number of redistricting criteria, including that districts be contiguous, equally populated, and compact, and contain a relatively integrated socioeconomic area.
This decade, the board included three members appointed by Republican officials, one who was appointed by the politically independent house speaker and one who was appointed by the chief justice. Among other choices, the board voted 3–2 to create two reliably Republican senate districts in the Anchorage area by combining two deep-red house seats from a suburban community with two house seats from the less politically homogenous city core. Alaska voters challenged these and other district-drawing decisions in five lawsuits that were consolidated into the case titled In the Matter of the 2021 Redistricting Cases.
After a lower court sustained certain challenges to house and senate districts in February 2022, the Alaska Supreme Court granted review and in a summary decision upheld the invalidation of the state map while reversing the lower court on the house districts. In May 2022, the trial court again invalidated the board’s redraw of the Anchorage-area senate districts and ordered the use of an interim plan in the 2022 election. Once again, on expedited appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the invalidation of the gerrymandered districts but stayed further map drawing by the board pending a full opinion on the matter.
With the release of the full opinion, efforts to redraw Alaska’s senate map can resume, now with the benefit of well-articulated safeguards against partisan abuses. Notably, the Alaska Supreme Court’s decision not only sustained partisan gerrymandering claims, but it did so by examining the structure of the constitutional provisions pertaining to redistricting and articulating an equal protection standard that prohibits discrimination against cognizable “communities of interest.”
Looking first to the intent behind taking away the redistricting pen from elected officials and giving it instead to a commission, the court situated anti-gerrymandering as a value deeply embedded in the Alaska Constitution. To do so, the court considered constitutional history, the structure of the redistricting board, and specific map-drawing criteria, concluding that “ample evidence illustrate[d]” the Alaska Constitution’s “intent to protect against gerrymandering.”
Against this backdrop, the opinion adapted Alaska’s equal protection doctrine to the partisan gerrymandering context. Specifically, the court held that a discriminatory purpose against a community of interest — that is, a geographically defined group of people who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests and view themselves as part of a coherent entity — establishes an equal protection violation. And to assess such claims, it reaffirmed the use of a “totality of circumstances” inquiry, which includes weighing various factors like the selective exclusion of certain geographic areas, use of secretive procedures, drawing of meandering district boundaries that ignore communities of interest, and taking advantage of regional partisanship.
Applying this test to the way the board fused house districts to create senate seats in the Anchorage area, the court determined that the map discriminated against a cognizable community of interest in pursuit of two safe Republican senate seats. Specifically, the board chose not to combine two house districts covering the predominantly white, affluent, and politically conservative community in the Eagle River suburb and instead paired each with house districts that covered significantly more racially diverse and lower-income areas in more central parts of Anchorage that have little in common with Eagle River.
The court considered the submitted expert testimony that examined key socioeconomic and political differences between the communities and the overwhelming public opposition to this pairing, and it concluded that partisanship played a role in the 3–2 board vote and that splitting, rather than combining, the two Eagle River house districts effectively gave conservative voters in the wealthier suburb control over two senate districts based on partisan voting patterns.
Critically, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to follow the U.S. Supreme Court and place partisan gerrymandering beyond judicial review. If anything, its decision underscores the ease with which equal protection principles can be adapted to identify impermissible partisan discrimination in redistricting.
The Alaska opinion adds to a partisan gerrymandering legal landscape that continues to evolve. In the coming months, state supreme courts in New Mexico and Utah will hear partisan gerrymandering claims under their states’ constitutions as well.
Yurij Rudensky is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.