WASHINGTON (AP) —A lawsuit challenging a 2011 redrawing of Maryland's congressional districts that enabled Democrats to pick up an additional seat in Congress can go forward, a three-judge panel ruled Wednesday.
The panel ruled 2-1 that the case can continue. State officials had argued that it should be dismissed.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case late last year, saying it had been improperly dismissed at an early stage. The court said federal law required that the case be heard by a panel of three judges, not the lone judge who initially dismissed the challenge.
The case began in 2013 when three residents sued, arguing that the new district map was irrational and violated their First Amendment and other rights. The case now includes nine Maryland residents who argue that state officials violated their rights by redrawing the district maps with the purpose of diluting the power of Republican voters.
In particular, the plaintiffs point to the redrawing of the state's sixth congressional district, which was represented for 20 years by Republican Roscoe Bartlett. The residents argue that in 2011, after the 2010 census, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic-controlled legislature set out to make the district a Democratic one. After the re-drawing, Bartlett faced Democrat John Delaney in his 2012 bid for re-election and lost to the Democrat. Seven of the state's eight representatives to Congress are Democrats.
The Supreme Court has suggested that extreme political gerrymandering would in theory violate the Constitution but it has struggled to come up with a standard for when it goes too far. The court has also suggested the judicial system may not be the right place for a challenge.
In allowing the case to go forward, Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for himself and Judge George Levi Russell III that the facts of the case "support a plausible claim" that the residents' rights were violated.
Michael B. Kimberly, the attorney representing the Maryland residents, called Wednesday's ruling "satisfying."
"Finally we have a theory where they might step in and say enough is enough," to political gerrymandering, he said.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who supports redistricting reform, praised the decision. He had pushed for legislation that stalled this year to create an independent panel to draw congressional district lines.
"This past session our administration put forward legislation to end the shameful and partisan gerrymandering practices that have dominated Maryland politics for far too long," Hogan, a Republican, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, status quo politicians stopped this effort, but we will continue to push for the successful passage of that legislation going forward."
The next step in the case is a trial before the three-judge panel, but that is unlikely to happen before December, Kimberly said.
The third judge hearing the case, Judge James K. Bredar, wrote that he would have granted the state's motion to dismiss. He was the judge who initially dismissed the case before the Supreme Court ordered the hearing by a three-judge panel.
"Because I conclude that Plaintiffs' claims can never succeed, I would spare the parties the significant expense of discovery and end this case now. Offensive as political gerrymandering may be, there is nothing to be gained (and much to be lost) in postponing the inevitable," Bredar wrote.
Bredar and Russell were both nominated by a Democrat, President Barack Obama. Niemeyer was nominated to his current position by a Republican, George H.W. Bush.