Perennial Republican candidate Ross Z. Pierpont yesterday challenged the constitutionality of Baltimore's new City Council redistricting plan, charging that it is designed to preserve safe seats for the all-Democratic council's incumbents.
"It's nothing more than a power play by the powers that be," said Mr. Pierpont, a resident of Homeland who has been a frequent GOP candidate for mayor, governor and the U.S. Congress. "It ruptures the city. They couldn't have done a better job destroying neighborhoods."
The federal court challenge to the redistricting plan, which was passed in March after a week of raucous debate, comes less than three months before the Sept. 12 primary and only a week before the filing deadline for candidates.
The plan, which creates five majority black districts and leaves only Southeast Baltimore's 1st District with a white majority, was signed into law by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke the day after it was passed. But the head of the city law department, City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, said the redistricting plan was never reviewed for constitutionality by city lawyers.
"We will vigorously defend the ordinance," he said. But, he added, "We are not really in a position to comment on the strength of the ordinance because we hadn't been asked to review it."
The redrawing of City Council districts is done after every census to make sure the districts support the voting rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution. But Mr. Janey said that since 1946, every City Council redistricting but one has been challenged in court.
Two of those challenges -- in 1946 and 1963 -- were successful, and new plans had to be drawn.
Supporters of the newest plan, drawn up by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, said it was intended in part to dilute the influence of the city's old-line political machines and provide opportunities for more blacks to be elected to the council. But opponents argued that it ruptured long-standing neighborhood coalitions.
After he signed the bill, Mayor Schmoke said he would ask the city solicitor to prepare to defend the ordinance in court if necessary. But until yesterday, Mr. Janey said such a request had not been made.
"No opinion was sought [from Mr. Janey's office] as far as we know," said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman. "It was the City Council's bill, and protocol says that they should have sought legal opinion."
Mr. Janey agreed. He said that his office had done a legal assessment of the mayor's original redistricting plan, as requested by Mr. Schmoke. However, neither the mayor nor the council asked Mr. Janey's office to review the Stokes plan, and Mr. Janey said his office rarely initiates such reviews.
The lack of review of the plan by the city's lawyers surprised some members of the council.
"I think the mayor and the city solicitor should know what their responsibilities are," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th. "I wouldexpect that any ordinance would be reported upon by all appropriate agencies."
Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, said that if neither the mayor nor the city solicitor reviewed the council plan, "then they are both derelict in their duties."
"They are both Harvard-trained lawyers and, if they don't know better than that, then shame on them," Mr. Ambridge said.
Mr. Pierpont was joined in his suit by Aaron K. Wilkes, a Baltimore Democrat who said he had been thinking of running for the council but had been discouraged by the new districting scheme. The two allege that black voting strength in some districts is actually diluted by the plan.