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Congressional map's foes receive skeptical hearing

Conservative activists received a frosty reception from a three-judge panel in Baltimore Tuesday as they sought to scrap Maryland's bitterly disputed congressional district map.

The federal judges peppered a lawyer for the challengers with skeptical questions as they considered a motion by the State Board of Elections to dismiss the lawsuit.

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The panel did not rule on the motion but expressed doubts about the plaintiffs' constitutional assertions and their legal standing to bring the suit in the first place.

The plaintiffs — led by a trio of prominent Republicans — sued last year in the latest of several efforts to throw out the congressional map and force the General Assembly to draw a new one. They are represented by lawyers from the conservative legal group Judicial Watch.

Robert Popper, senior attorney for Judicial Watch, acknowledged that there's no case law that says lawmakers can't take politics into account when drawing district lines. But he called on the court to rule that the current lines are so egregiously convoluted that they must be ruled invalid.

"We don't want maximally compact. We want minimally compact," he told the judges.

When Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer told him to "articulate your standard" for compact districts, Popper urged the panel to fashion its own. Neither Niemeyer nor his colleagues, District Judges James K. Bredar and George Levi Russell III, displayed any enthusiasm for doing so.

Niemeyer also questioned Popper sharply about whom Judicial Watch was claiming to represent. Popper said the plaintiffs were suing on behalf of all Marylanders — especially those in the six of eight districts he claimed were impermissibly gerrymandered.

"It could be every voter in the state is hurt," Popper said. He argued that lawmakers were in effect choosing their voters rather than letting voters choose their lawmakers.

Niemeyer dismissed the arguments as "meaningless under the Constitution." The judge said there's nothing in that document that says voters are "entitled to live in a district free of manipulation."

Jeff Darsie, an assistant attorney general representing the elections board, urged the judges to dismiss the case. He called it "only a generalized grievance about the operation of government."

The plaintiffs in the case include Republican Dels. Neil C. Parrott of Washington County and Matt Morgan of St. Mary's County, as well as former House minority leader and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

The judges did not say when they will rule.

Maryland has been identified as one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the nation, with the state's 3rd Congressional District often ranking in the nation's top two for its lack of compactness.

After the 2010 Census, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Democratic-dominated General Assembly set out to maximize their party's strength in the U.S. House delegation by packing as many Republicans as they could into the 1st District and artfully distributing GOP voters to retain a Democratic advantage in every other district.

The effort succeeded in 2012, when Democrat John Delaney succeeded in wresting the previously Republican 6th District held by longtime U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett to turn the Democrats' previous 6-2 advantage in Maryland into a 7-1 majority.

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To prevail, the map had to survive challenges both in the courts and at the polls.

A three-judge panel of U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December 2011 that the map was legal. The panel rejected a challenge to the map on the grounds that it discriminated against African-Americans, but the judges delivered blistering descriptions of the resulting districts.

Niemeyer, writing for the panel, said the 3rd District was "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."

Nevertheless, the panel said that the Supreme Court had ruled that the Constitution does not require "regularity of district shape."

Republicans took another shot at the map in 2012 when they gathered enough petition signatures to challenge it in a referendum. They fell short of persuading enough voters to reject it.

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