Three federal judges expressed skepticism Tuesday that Maryland's political mapmakers intentionally diluted black voting power when they drew new congressional districts, as the map's opponents have argued.
The three-judge panel held a hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to determine whether the state's new congressional map passes constitutional muster.
Judge Paul V. Neimeyer, one of the three deciding the matter, said that the General Assembly-approved plan appeared to be drawn with an eye toward ensuring that some incumbent members of Congress would be re-elected. "If that is the motivation, it is hard to get racial discrimination out of that evidence," Neimeyer said. The other two judges made similar comments.
In October, Maryland's Democratic-majority legislature approved a new congressional map that radically redrew the 6th District in Western Maryland, changing it from a solidly Republican district to one seen as a toss-up. Some African-Americans have cried foul, saying that the ruling party's effort to gain partisan advantage in Washington was done at the expense of black communities that were unfairly broken apart.
In court, Jason Torchinsky, a lawyer for the nine plaintiffs suing the state, made that case, saying the General Assembly was "carving up the black communities to ensure the election of non-Hispanic white candidates."
Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman, who defended the state map, denied any racist intent. He noted that the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee, which developed the initial draft of the plan, is chaired by an African-American woman. He also pointed out that the African-American leaders of three Maryland municipalities — Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — all testified in favor of the map.
"It is impossible for me to believe that the main purpose of the map was infected by racism," Friedman said. "If that were the case, the entire African-American leadership in the state of Maryland was hoodwinked. I don't believe that happened."
The judges did not say when they would decide the case, though Friedman pressed for a speedy schedule. He said that if the panel deliberates for too long, it would be impossible for Maryland to hold the primary election on April 3 as planned.
The U.S. Constitution requires that states readjust political boundaries at least once every 10 years to account for population shifts determined by the census. (Separately, Maryland lawmakers are also redrawing lines for the state General Assembly districts; a draft of that map was unveiled last week.)
African-American groups and Republicans threatened a lawsuit over the congressional map even before Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law. Last month, the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, a civil rights group based in Prince George's County, secured funding from the politically conservative, Iowa-based Legacy Foundation to pursue the legal challenge.
Though the judges saved their toughest questions for the plaintiffs Tuesday, they also showed discomfort with aspects of the new congressional map. Judge Roger Titus flatly called it a "gerrymander."
Judge Neimeyer at one point said the plaintiffs "made a very persuasive case that they broke up communities of interest." He also described the congressional districts as "odd," and singled out the 3rd District, represented by Rep. John Sarbanes, as "peculiar in shape."
Friedman, defending the state map, reminded the judges that the federal rules do not require state lawmakers to draft compact districts for Congress.
The suit also attacks a new Maryland law that counts prisoners at their last known address instead of in the county where they are incarcerated. Torchinsky said the rule unfairly diminishes the voice of rural votes.
Friedman defended the change, which affects several hundred voters, but also pleaded with the judges not to redraw the map solely on that basis. He said the Governors Redistricting Advisory Committee could produce another one within "48 hours" if need be.
The federal judges also seemed unconvinced Tuesday by an idea the civil rights group has pushed to expand the typical definition of "majority-minority" district. The group has proposed counting Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities as being in the same voting bloc as blacks. Neimeyer discounted that idea entirely.
Three of the nine plaintiffs attended Tuesday's hearing. One, Patricia Fletcher of Landover in Prince George's County, observed that the judges had some "tough questions" that made her feel "a little anxious" about the outcome. "Win, lose or draw, I can go home to my grandchildren and say, 'Your grandmother did the right thing for you,'" she said.