WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court ordered Worcester County yesterday to hold a county commission election this fall using a redistricting plan that probably will mean a black candidate will win a seat there for the first time.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., refused to give the county more time to draw up new districts for the board. Instead, it adopted one of the plans put forward by black voters in the county.
In a key part of the ruling, the appeals court cast aside a plan drafted by Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young of Baltimore. The judge's plan would have allowed blacks to pool their votes -- through "cumulative voting" -- behind a single candidate in one district to help assure that they could pick a winner.
Black voters, however, did not support Judge Young's plan, because the district in which blacks would have had the best chance of winning would have had only a 44 percent black voting population.
Under the plan that emerged from the appeals court, a new midcounty district that includes parts of the towns of Berlin and Snow Hill will have a black majority of 58 percent. That district, like each of the other four, will cast votes for only a single commissioner. No other district will have a majority of black voters.
While 58 percent is not as large a black majority as the voters in the midcounty area had preferred, it is "large enough to give African-Americans a fair opportunity to elect" a commissioner of their choice, according to one their lawyers, C. Christopher Brown of Baltimore.
The filing deadline for elections to be held in November is July 3, and black candidates are expected to emerge.
Two members of the current county board, President Floyd F. Bassett and member John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, said they expected the commissioners to vote at a Tuesday meeting to take the case on to the Supreme Court. Both also voiced doubts that the county can make arrangements in time for a September primary.
Worcester County last held commissioner elections in 1990. Legal challenges to the existing at-large system delayed a new election. The appeals court yesterday stressed the need to go ahead with "the long-awaited November election."
Mr. Brown said he hoped the black voters in the new district would come together behind one candidate they prefer. Another lawyer for the black voters, Deborah A. Jeon, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Centreville, said political activists in the county had not given much thought to who might run for the new district.
Honiss W. Cane Jr., a black businessman in Pocomoke City and one of the leaders in the redistricting lawsuit, had been expected to run as a favorite in a new black-dominated district. But under the plan that now will be used, Pocomoke City will be placed in a new district with a white-voter majority. Mr. Cane could not be reached for comment.
Under the plan that black voters preferred, all of Pocomoke City would have been included, and the district would have had a 62 percent black-voter majority.
Worcester County, a largely rural county on the southeastern shore of Maryland reaching from Delaware to Virginia, has had a countywide voting system for its five commissioners. While the commissioners had to reside in specific districts, they ran in "at-large" balloting.
Judge Young ruled in 1994 that the countywide balloting illegally diluted the votes of blacks in Worcester County. He said blacks hTC were concentrated in areas that could be put into a district with a black-voter majority, to cure the defect he found.
The dispute has been to the appeals court twice, and to the Supreme Court once. The Supreme Court declined to review it last February, leading to the appeal that the Richmond court decided yesterday.
The new plan includes, besides the midcounty district, a northern coastal district that includes Ocean City, a southern coastal district, a western county district, and one that includes Pocomoke City and runs along the county's southern boundary.
Two commissioners, Mr. Bloxom of Pocomoke City and Jeanne Lynch of Ocean City, have announced that they will run for seats under the new plan. Board President Bassett has said he will not run.