Legislators are entitled to immunity, panel says


A three-judge federal panel ruled yesterday that Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Maryland lawmakers cannot be forced to testify about their legislative roles in helping to redraw boundaries for state Senate and House of Delegate seats.

But the court delayed a decision on whether Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. can be compelled to testify about their work as members of the governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee.

The law setting up new election districts has been challenged in court by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Republican-backed Marylanders for Fair Representation. The NAACP says the redistricting law violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it fails to provide for sufficient black representation. The GOP claims the law amounts to gerrymandering.

The suits were filed separately this year in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and were ordered consolidated yesterday.

Judge Frederic N. Smalkin ruled that the lawmakers were entitled to legislative immunity as long as they were working within the capacity of their official duties.

Judge J. Frederick Motz and 4th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Francis D. Murnaghan concurred with most of the opinion. But they deferred the decision on whether Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell can be forced to testify about their roles as redistricting committee members.

They said they would make their decision after other committee members, who are private citizens, testify in depositions.

Carmen M. Shepherd, an assistant attorney general, said yesterday's opinion was the first ruling by a federal court on legislative immunity for Maryland officials.

"We're quite pleased with the general ruling. Certainly, the court recognizes the immunity of the governor," said Ms. Shepherd, who had argued for complete immunity for the state officials.

Ms. Shepherd called the ruling only a partial victory for the state "because the court might order depositions later for Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Miller."

Lawyers for both the GOP and NAACP said they were encouraged because the decision left open the possibility the two lawmakers could be forced to testify.

The lawsuit seeks to find out whether legislators had a motive when allowing the proposal to become law.

Governor Schaefer's five-member Redistricting Advisory Committee submitted its plan to him last December.

Governor Schaefer made some changes before submitting it to the General Assembly on Jan. 8. The proposal automatically became law on Feb. 22 because legislators did not amend it or approve an alternative.

David D. Queen, an attorney for the GOP group, said he wants to force legislators to disclose the process used to develop the redistricting law and to have it thrown out by the court.

"Any ruling by the court to give us access to information that allows us to accomplish these two purposes is greatly appreciated," Mr. Queen said.

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