Challenges to Maryland’s new congressional district map could go to trial days before an already pushed-back candidate filing deadline next month, a judge said Wednesday.
Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia said she plans to rule on a motion to dismiss the case by next week. But if a trial is necessary, it would begin March 15; last week the Court of Appeals moved the candidate filing deadline to March 22.
Battaglia, who served as an associate judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals between 2001 and 2016, emphasized that the court process will move “expeditiously,” given the fast-approaching June 28 primary.
On Wednesday, she weighed arguments on whether to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Republican voters from all eight of the state’s congressional districts.
The lawsuit, Szeliga v. Lamone, charges that the congressional map passed by Democratic lawmakers during a December special session violates Article I, Section 7 of the Maryland Constitution by intentionally diluting Republican votes. That section requires the General Assembly to “pass laws necessary for the preservation of the purity of elections.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two Republican state delegates: Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) and Del. Christopher T. Adams (R-Lower Shore).
Lawsuits against the new congressional map focus on alleged violations to the state constitution rather than the U.S. Constitution after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in on state-level partisan gerrymandering disputes in the Benisek v. Lamone case. That case centered around the state’s 6th Congressional District as it was drawn in 2011.
Whether the Maryland Constitution applies to congressional maps was a key point in both plaintiffs’ and the state’s arguments Wednesday. Strider Dickson, an attorney representing the Republican voters in the Szeliga v. Lamone case, argued that the General Assembly violated its duty to pass laws that protect the “purity of elections” by drawing a map that intentionally favors the Democratic party.
“When it gets to that point, that’s when it becomes corrupt,” Dickson said.
The most consequential change in the map occurred in the 1st District. That district, which is currently represented by Maryland’s lone congressional Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, previously included parts of Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties with the Eastern Shore.
Under the map enacted by lawmakers, the 1st District sheds territory in northern Maryland and stretches across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to include parts of central Anne Arundel County with the Eastern Shore, as well as part of eastern Harford County. That change is set to make the district more competitive for Democrats in future elections.
Battaglia, however, questioned whether partisan gerrymandering is considered corrupt. She said she has pored over hundreds of redistricting cases surrounding partisanship, and couldn’t find a case that declared partisan gerrymandering explicitly corrupt.
Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento argued that the Maryland constitution’s provisions don’t apply to congressional districts in asking Battaglia to dismiss the case.
Trento also questioned whether the new map represents an “extreme” partisan gerrymander, since Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland. He argued that the framers of the state constitution assumed politics would be inherent to the redistricting process by entrusting the legislative branch with the task.
“The constitution contemplates that the political branches will practice politics in doing this,” Trento said.
Trento also urged a speedy court process, and warned that the State Board of Elections is running short on time to prepare for the June 28 primary.
Battaglia said she plans to move the case forward quickly, but noted that election dates aren’t set in stone and primary elections can be pushed back if needed. For instance, the 2020 primary election was originally scheduled for April — but was pushed back to June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wednesday hearing also included plaintiffs from another challenge to the congressional map, brought by the national conservative group Judicial Watch and Del. Neil C. Parrot (R-Washington), who argue that rules governing the size and shape of legislative districts should be extended to congressional boundaries as well.