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Government & Politics

Federal Judge Blocks Baltimore County Council Redistricting Plan

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a redistricting plan proposed by the Baltimore County Council. Screenshot.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a redistricting plan from the Baltimore County Council that included just one majority Black council district and ordered county officials to adopt a new plan by March 8.

U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby issued an order requiring county officials to adopt a new plan that “either includes two reasonably compact majority-Black Districts for the election of County councilmembers, or an additional County District in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice” and complies with the Voting Rights Act.

Five of seven districts in the plan that was approved by the county council in December were majority white and another had a 46.17% white plurality. Similar to current maps, just one district would have been majority Black at 72.59%, according to data released by the Baltimore County Council.

Roughly 30% of county residents are Black, according to U.S. Census data, and nearly half are people of color — reflecting increasing diversity in the county in recent decades.

The Baltimore County NAACP, Common Cause Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County, and several Black voters in the county filed the federal lawsuit against the council’s redistricting plan in December, arguing that the plan violated the Voting Rights Act.

That federal law bans cracking, or “fragmenting the minority voters among several districts where a bloc-voting majority can routinely outvote them,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, or by “packing them into one or a small number of districts to minimize their influence.”

Griggsby found that the plaintiffs proved the three preconditions required under the Thornburg v. Gingles U.S. Supreme Court case for determining whether a redistricting plan could violate the federal Voting Rights Act:

  • That the group of Black voters in the western portion of Baltimore County is large and geographically compact enough to create more districts and elect candidates of their choice in those districts.
  • That the Black voting age population in the county is politically cohesive and usually votes for the same candidates.
  • And that the white majority in the county “votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.”

Andrew D. Freeman, an attorney with the law firm Brown, Goldstein and Levy who is representing the plaintiffs, pointed to what he described as a “strong pattern of racially polarized voting” in asking Griggsby to block the redistricting plan at a hearing last week.

A single majority Black district was drawn in 2001 after a push from civil rights activists. Residents of that district have elected a Black council member in every election since it was created, while majority white districts have elected white council members. Baltimore County Council Chair Julian E. Jones Jr. (D) is the only Black council member.

“The evidence before the Court establishes that a significantly high level of racially-polarized voting occurs in County elections,” Griggsby wrote in a Tuesday filing. “It is also undisputed that no Black candidate has ever been elected to County-wide office and that no Black candidate had ever been elected to the County Council before 2002, when the County Council created District 4.”

In granting the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, Griggsby wrote that “any harm to the County resulting from the injunction of its redistricting plan could not be as significant as the harm caused by the dilution of the votes of Black County voters.”

Griggsby wrote that the plaintiffs have a “substantial likelihood of success” in proving that the map violates the federal Voting Rights Act, and said plaintiffs showed that “Black County voters have less opportunity than White County voters to elect candidates of their choice to the Council.”

The plaintiffs and their legal team lauded Griggsby’s decision in a statement provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

“This is huge win for the many Black voters, community leaders, and civil rights organizations that challenged Baltimore County’s illegal redistricting plan,” the plaintiffs said in the statement. “We are determined to ensure that a fair map is created with at least two majority-Black districts that afford Black voters a fair and effective opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”

Ava E. Lias-Booker, an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods who is representing Baltimore County, argued at the hearing last Tuesday that “Black-preferred” candidates like County Councilmember Thomas E. Quirk (D), who is white, have won in districts that aren’t majority Black. Lias-Booker also pointed to the Purcell principle, or the concept that federal courts shouldn’t change state election rules just before an election, in arguing the court shouldn’t enjoin the map.

Lias-Booker also said last week that the “likely result of any ruling” by the court would push the case up to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

On Tuesday evening, Jones issued a statement on behalf of the council: “We will review the Court’s decision, consider our options, and determine what next steps are appropriate.”

Maryland’s primary election is scheduled for June 28. The candidate filing deadline was recently pushed back to March 22, as the Court of Appeals considers challenges to the newly reconfigured state legislative districts.