A federal three-judge panel on Friday threw out a lawsuit challenging Gov. Martin O'Malley's congressional redistricting map, rejecting the charge that the new district lines discriminate against African-Americans.
The decision at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt leaves in place a map that is believed to give Democrats a strong chance of picking up a seventh seat in Maryland's eight-member delegation to the House of Representatives. The Republican put at risk is Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose Western Maryland district was redrawn to include a large chunk of traditionally liberal Montgomery County.
Writing for the panel, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer of the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals granted the state's motion for summary judgment and denied a request by nine black Marylanders that the court issue an injunction against use of the new map.
Niemeyer wrote that the plaintiffs failed to show that officials moved African-American voters from one district to another because they are black. The judge said that while they may have been moved for partisan purposes, that is not a violation of the 14th Amendment.
A spokesman for the plaintiffs said the group has no plans for further appeal. "We don't have the resources," said Radamase Cabrera of the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, a Prince George's County-based group that organized the lawsuit.
Barring further legal challenge, the map will govern Maryland's elections to Congress for the next decade, starting with the April 3 primary election. States are required to adjust their congressional district maps every 10 years to take into account population changes identified by the census.
O'Malley's office released a statement welcoming the decision. "The governor's map complied with the letter and the spirit of the law. We were confident that it would stand up to legal challenges."
In challenging the map, the plaintiffs had argued that Maryland's population requires a plan with three majority-black congressional districts. The court ruled that with a 28 percent African-American population, a map with two majority black districts — 25 percent — was permissible.
Niemeyer, joined by District Judges Roger W. Titus and Alexander Williams Jr., noted that the map devised by O'Malley's redistricting commission and adopted by the General Assembly had the support of many African-Americans, including majorities of the black members of the Maryland House and Senate.
To accept the plaintiffs' argument, the judge wrote, the panel would have to conclude that the entire African-American leadership in Maryland had been "hoodwinked."
While the panel rejected the racial claims, the judges said their opinion should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the map.
They took particular note of the 3rd District, represented by Rep. John Sarbanes. Niemeyer wrote that its shape makes the original Massachusetts map that gave gerrymandering its name look "tame by comparison."
"This is more reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state," Niemeyer wrote. But Niemeyer noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not require "regularity of district shape."
Titus, in a concurring opinion, called the 3rd District a "Rorschach-like eyesore" and the map as a whole a "blatant political gerrymander." However, he wrote, the Supreme Court has not articulated a standard under which courts could strike down a redistricting plan on that basis.
The court also rejected a challenge to a Maryland law requiring that prison inmates be counted as residents of the jurisdiction where they lived before being incarcerated rather than where the institution is located. The suit claimed the law was racially discriminatory, but the judges found no merit in the argument.
The lawsuit was bankrolled by the conservative Legacy Foundation and supported by the Maryland Republican Party.
Cabrera said his group also opposes the General Assembly redistricting map recently proposed by O'Malley. He said that if it is not altered to increase the number of minority districts, the Hamer committee will sue to have it overturned in the state courts.