A case for the courts


Elbridge Gerry was one of those eminently forgettable figures of history whose distinction rests on having served as vice president of the United States. Before he attained that office, Gerry served a couple of terms as governor of Massachusetts in the early part of the 19th century, and in that capacity drew up an election-district plan so grotesque that the state looked like one of those 1,000-footed insects, the salamander. Noticing this similarity, someone dubbed the plan a "gerrymander," and ever since the term has been used to define the drawing of election-district lines for unfair political advantage.

The plan for dividing Baltimore city which was adopted last Friday by the City Council is enough, however, to make Elbridge Gerry blush. The purpose -- virtually acknowledged by the plan's sponsors -- is to create a district framework which will make it possible, even likely, that white residents of Baltimore -- who now constitute 40 percent of the city's population -- would be reduced in council representation to just 16 percent.

What was done by the council is, as the Elbridge Gerry experience attests, nearly as old as the nation itself. Gerrymandering is almost an inevitable result of political groups -- along party lines, geographic lines, racial lines, even religious lines -- struggle for political advantage. The moment the contest takes that shape, fairness almost always goes out the window.

That is why the U.S. Supreme Court, 30 years ago, chose to enter what had hitherto been called the "political thicket" of determining the fairness of districts. The court's initial decision was designed to break the stranglehold of rural areas in state legislatures in an increasingly urban America. But since then, the precedent has been applied to political unfairness in a wide variety of ways; some courts have even held that dominant political parties may not play their hand too harshly in drawing lines to exclude minority parties.

This being so, Mayor Schmoke's signing of the new districting bill -- a plan which departs sharply from a less radical proposal he himself had promoted -- at least has the virtue of setting the stage for a court test in time for the coming fall elections.

We trust that the excluded parties in this plan will lose no time in asking courts to examine the plan to determine whether it meets the elementary test of fairness.

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