Waiting for the Redistricting Dominoes to Fall

Left to right: Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. John P. Sarbanes, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, and Rep.-elect David J. Trone in Baltimore Wednesday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

A federal court decision forcing Maryland to redraw its congressional district lines in the next six months — in time for the next round of elections — has thrust state leaders into a redistricting process that most weren’t expecting to deal with until after the next federal Census.

It has also generated a host of questions about how, exactly, the state should proceed to satisfy the conditions the court established.

A three-judge panel in Baltimore ruled on Wednesday that the map the state has been using since 2011 violates the rights of Republicans who were moved out of western Maryland’s 6th District, a largely rural district that favored conservative candidates. Then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley and the Democrats who control the General Assembly shifted more than 350,000 voters into new districts, primarily the 8th, to make the 6th more competitive.

It worked. In 2012, businessman John K. Delaney (D) knocked off then-Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R), who had held the seat for two decades.

Seven Republican voters from Western Maryland sued the state a year later, alleging their First Amendment rights of association were violated. In subsequent videotaped depositions, O’Malley and other top Democrats acknowledged that the changes were intended to benefit them politically, a common practice by state legislatures around the country from both parties, they argued.

In their ruling this week, the three-judge panel struck the map down because of its partisan underpinnings, ordering that a new map be drawn by March, in time for the 2020 elections.

Maryland Attorney Brian E. Frosh (D) has yet to decide whether to appeal this week’s court order. His office continues to review the ruling and he will reportedly make a decision in the next couple days.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a redistricting reform advocate, has not spoken with the attorney general, though top staff for the two men have been in communication since the ruling.

Hogan wants Frosh to accept the ruling without appeal, so that he and the legislature can focus their energy on drawing a new map to comply with the court’s order, the governor’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, said.

“The court has spoken,” she said. “It’s time for Maryland to move forward with a new map that complies with the court’s ruling.”

A lawmaker who has advocated for redistricting reform takes a similar view.

“The court is saying we have to do it, so we have to do it,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s).

Changes will have to be approved by the General Assembly. Among the unanswered questions in the wake of the court’s ruling is who will draw the new map — the governor or lawmakers.

If the state fails to meet the March deadline, which will hit toward the end of the legislature’s annual 90-day session, the court will establish a commission to handle the task.

“I don’t know if there will be a special committee of the legislature or the governor,” Pinksy said. “At the end of the day, you have to take the population of the state and divide it by eight; there are only so many ways to do it.”

What isn’t clear is whether map-makers, whoever they end up being, will do a wholesale re-write of the state’s congressional map, or will they simply tweak the line between the 6th and 8th districts (perhaps including the 1st District as well) to make the 6th more competitive for Republicans.

“I haven’t talked to Senate President Miller or Speaker Busch or the governor, obviously, but it would seem to me … they would keep it to 6 and 8, and then do a bigger one after the Census,” Pinsky said.

“It would be shocking to me to redo the border for one election when then you’re going to get to the Census and have to make changes again. Because then [some voters] could, within three elections, have three different congresspeople, and that just seems silly. That seems very disruptive.”

Delaney opted not to seek re-election this year. The day before the court’s ruling, Democrat David J. Trone defeated Amie Hoeber (R) in a battle to replace Delaney in the 6th District. His win is not affected by the ruling.

Hoeber’s campaign released a statement to Maryland Matters from the two-time congressional candidate Thursday night, applauding the court’s decision.

“I was a Congressional candidate who was unfairly disadvantaged by this redistricting,” she said. “I look forward to a final resolution of this issue that removes the inequities identified by the court.”

In a related development, state Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) issued an advisory early Friday morning suggesting he plans to announce a run for the 6th District seat in 2020. Parrott has scheduled a news conference from 11:30 a.m. Friday in the gazebo in between the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts parking lot and the Hagerstown City Park Lake in Hagerstown.

“District 6 has been represented by Congressman John Delaney and now will be represented by Congressman-Elect David Trone,” Parrott said in his statement. “Both representatives live in Potomac, MD, right next to DC, not even in Congressional District 6, as it is currently drawn.”

‘An important opinion’

Many states have congressional boundaries that seek to benefit the party that controls the process.

When the challenge launched by the seven Maryland voters reached the Supreme Court in March, it was paired with a Wisconsin case in which Republicans were accused of drawing lines to hurt Badger State Democrats. The court ended up punting on both cases, sending them back to the lower courts for additional action.

Will voters in other states that suffer from partisan gerrymandering benefit from this week’s ruling? Quite possibly, an attorney involved in the case said.

“I think the court’s opinion will be an important opinion for gerrymandering states moving forward,” said Michael B. Kimberly, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented the 6th District plaintiffs.

“One of the features of the three-judge court procedure is that appeals go straight to the Supreme Court. I think it’s very likely that before this coming June the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to weigh in on these issues [again].”

“Certainly, for the time being, it’s a really great development in the law,” he added.

On Tuesday, voters in four states — Colorado, Utah, Michigan and Missouri — approved referendum questions establishing non-partisan redistricting commissions.

Chasse said Hogan will introduce legislation again next year to have Maryland take line-drawing power away from lawmakers and give it to a nonpartisan panel. Similar bills have died without a vote.

Redistricting reform advocates like Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, think this week’s ruling could be a springboard for cooperation.

“We hope that the General Assembly and Gov. Hogan work together to craft a map that applies fairly to the 2020 cycle,” he said. “We also hope that they just put this question to rest by taking up Gov. Hogan’s redistricting proposal, so we can be done with this for once and for all.”

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