Two court cases could determine fate of redistricting

Community Times

While politicians celebrated the Fourth of July at every parade, festival and cookout they could spot in Reisterstown, Glyndon and Owings Mills, the eyes of our congressmen also were focused on what's happening in federal court.

That's because two political gerrymandering cases could have a direct impact on the 2018 election and the future of Maryland's eight members of Congress.

Northwest Baltimore County is especially affected by any change in redistricting rules because at the moment we are stacked like a triple-decker congressional sandwich.

At the bottom of this sandwich, taking in Pikesville and Owings Mills, is Rep. John Sarbanes' crazy-quilt district, which a federal appeals judge described in unfaltering terms as a "winged-pterodactyl." It meanders all over Central Maryland in flapping fashion.

In the middle of our triple-decker sandwich, Greater Glyndon-Reisterstown, is Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger's district, which slices through populated chunks of Baltimore County, portions of Baltimore City, much of Harford County and northern Anne Arundel County. Since Ruppersberger is a national security expert, he wanted a district that included Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade. He got his wish.

The top layer of the northwest County sandwich is Rep. Elijah Cumming's district, which charges through African-American sections of Baltimore City into Woodlawn and Randallstown and then sweeps north and east around the other two districts to take in a huge amount of rural Baltimore County.

In addition to this triple-decker arrangement in our neck of the woods, Rep. Andy Harris, who lives in Timonium, represents 55,000 residents in Baltimore County (out of a total of 722,000 in his district, which takes in the entire Eastern Shore).

Cummings' district contains 188,000 Baltimore County residents, Rupperberger's district has 428,000 and Sarbanes' district has 135,000.

It's a mish-mash due to political manipulation known as gerrymandering.

That's a term derived from the early 1800s, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts produced a one-sided redistricting plan for the state legislature that a cartoonist drew in the shape of a salamander. It wasn't long before every politically distorted reshaping of districts was known as a "gerrymander."

For decades, the Supreme Court laid out rules to avert abuses. All districts redrawn after the latest census must be compact, compatible, contiguous and respect natural and political boundaries.

But in recent decades, the High Court has refused to involve itself in redistricting disputes. Too political, the court decreed.

That may be changing. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments this fall in a Wisconsin redistricting case in which Republicans gerrymandered Democrats so badly the GOP has a huge edge in the state legislature, even though Wisconsin is evenly split between the two parties.

Lower courts have agreed the Republican redistricting map went too far in its gerrymandering.

Could a favorable High Court ruling mean Maryland's districts might have to be re-drawn to make them more equitable to both parties?

Even if the court rejects the lower-court rulings, there's a chance the justices might use the Wisconsin case to delineate more clearly rules of the redistricting road.

A second court case involves Maryland's 6th Congressional District, where Republicans claim gerrymandering deprives them of any chance of winning that seat.

It's a weak argument because a Republican came within 1 percent of winning three years ago in that district.

Still, it's uncertain how lower federal courts will rule.

So it's worth watching the progress of those two court disputes. They could determine if you'll be switching congressional districts in next year's election — and again after the 2020 census!

Barry Rascovar's blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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