The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Thursday that complaints of partisan gerrymandering — including allegations brought in Maryland — should not be resolved by federal courts, preserving the status quo for Carroll County’s congressional districts.
The ruling — a 5-4 vote with the court’s conservative justices in the majority — finds that federal courts aren’t the place to resolve complaints of redistricting that results in the advantage of one party or group over another. For Carroll, a county that’s long been sliced up and included in districts that cross county lines, the decision comes as a disappointment for many area representatives.
“Yikes, that’s bad news,” Carroll County Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said when he heard about the ruling. “That’s a shame, I was sincerely hoping for something better than this.”
Bouchat, a former State House candidate, previously filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court of Maryland claiming the state’s land division hurt his bid for a delegate seat representing District 9A and violated his constitutional rights. The court wouldn’t hear the case, saying it had no merit, Bouchat said, and he chose not to pursue it any further as the Supreme Court gerrymandering case moved forward.
In light of today’s decision, he said he hopes the court revisits the issue in the future.
“[This] means that the majority party in the General Assembly can still go around disenfranchising citizens who live in the minority side of a cross-county district,” he said.
The Supreme Court majority remanded the Maryland case — as well as another from North Carolina — to the lower courts, instructing them to dismiss the complaints of partisan gerrymandering. Roberts argued that the legislative branch of government is the appropriate venue for fixing gerrymandering.
“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles’ ... does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary. We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
In March, a proposed 6th Congressional District map that Gov. Larry Hogan’s bipartisan redistricting committee adopted received favorable reviews as a step in the right direction from some Carroll County Republican elected officials. It came after a federal court ruled in November that Maryland Democrats had unconstitutionally gerrymandered the district, ordering a new map drawn by early March — a deadline that was suspended while the nation’s highest court made its decision.
The 6th Congressional District, once solidly Republican, stretches from the liberal Washington suburbs of Montgomery County to conservative Western Maryland.
Carroll County is divided mainly between the 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties, and the 1st Congressional District, which covers the entire Eastern Shore, much of Harford County and parts of northern Baltimore County. Some southern parts of Carroll are in the 7th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of Baltimore city and Howard and Baltimore counties.
State Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, said Maryland’s congressional map bears resemblance to a “Rorschach test,” a psychological test that involves observing inkblots.
“Right now, we have one district in Maryland that literally any Republican could win no matter what they do, mostly, and we have seven districts most of which literally any Democrat will win,” he said. “That’s not good for the exchange of ideas.”
Though he understood the court’s rationale and reluctance to weigh in, Ready said it was “frustrating to be stuck with this bad map.”
Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, approached the ruling with two hats. As a citizen, he was disappointed. As a lawyer, he understood the court’s reasoning that political questions should be left to legislative bodies.
“I hate to see people disenfranchised,” he said, “and it’s pretty clear that’s what’s happened with regard to the 6th Congressional District of Maryland, and it’s probably the case down in North Carolina, too.”
To him, the solution is what the governor’s brought forth: putting the district-drawing in the hands of a nonpartisan commission.
“Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I’m hopeful,” he said. “But it certainly hasn’t gotten any traction out of the Maryland General Assembly the last four sessions.”
So, it’s time for the General Assembly to step up, follow Hogan’s lead and support his commission proposal, said Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5.
“Clearly, our districts have been manipulated, and it’s been admitted to in court,” she said. “It’s done all over the place. And we need to fix it in our own backyard, which is in Maryland, and the other states need to fix it as well.”
Carroll County’s Republican Central Committee didn’t immediately comment on the ruling. The committee members planned to meet Thursday evening, Chairman Dave Brauning Jr. said.
Don West, the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee’s chairman, said the court “punted” on the issue, and whatever solution that is determined has “got to be fair.”
“It can’t be Republicans not happy with what happened in Maryland and Democrats not happy with what happened in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s gotta be across the border.”
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he wished the court would’ve taken up the issue and condemned partisan gerrymandering.
“I wish they would’ve said … the districts should be drawn according to population around a certain area and not gerrymandered so you can get the most [of] whatever you want — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Green Party, it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “It should not be drawn that way.”
Not all of Carroll’s representatives were against the court’s ruling. State Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, said he fundamentally agreed with the notion that federal courts shouldn't decide Maryland’s maps.
“The responsibility falls back to where it always has been, which is the Maryland General Assembly and the governor, to draw a fair map that’s representative of the people of Maryland,” he said.
He said there is a “perfect remedy” to the issue — having the opportunity to draw all new congressional maps after the 2020 Census.
“It’s an opportunity to draw correct maps and stop penalizing the people of Frederick and Carroll County and having our county split in half,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a huge fight.”
This story has been updated.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this report.