Maryland's highest court has released a nearly 40-page opinion explaining a ruling it made a year ago to keep Carroll County's government structure intact, saying that only the General Assembly could implement a redistricting map from which to elect five county commissioners.
The Court of Appeals' decision voided a 2004 referendum in which Carroll voters overwhelmingly approved increasing the Board of Commissioners from three to five members, to be elected by district.
The June 2006 case involved a long-standing political feud over two district maps, one favored by Carroll County's all-Republican delegation; the other backed by the then-county commissioners, the mayors of Carroll's eight municipalities and many residents. The state legislature had failed to approve a district map for Carroll County before its 2006 session recessed.
"It is not the place of this Court to adopt a redistricting plan for Carroll County," Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote in his opinion, issued Thursday. "This Court is required, under the separation of powers doctrine, to give deference to the General Assembly's action, or, as in this case, inaction."
Three commissioners were again elected at large in November as a result of the Court of Appeals' June 2006 decision.
While the Court of Appeals has not generally ruled on county redistricting matters, Bell wrote that state redistricting law would apply to local jurisdictions. In his opinion, Bell said the legislature had to first adopt a redistricting map before the court could step in to determine its constitutionality.
That the Court of Appeals' chief judge authored the lengthy opinion could mean it will serve as legal precedent for future county-level redistricting disputes, said Joseph M. Getty, a former policy director for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and one of the appellants in the case.
But Assistant Attorney General William R. Varga said he didn't think it would establish a precedent because "the facts in this case are so strange."
Unless Carroll becomes a charter county, Varga said, the legislature will have to create the districts. If the Carroll commissioners gain some more local control under the "code home rule" style of government, they could increase the number of board members but not enact districts on their own, Varga added.
The Carroll legislators' failure to pass a district map is, in part, a political problem, said James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"There's no reason for the state legislature - which is firmly in Democratic control - to do anything that a heavily Republican county would want," Gimpel said. "It's not like the Carroll County delegation has very much influence."
The Carroll delegation plans to introduce a new redistricting bill during the next General Assembly session, said state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who represents Carroll and Howard counties. Kittleman said the delegation might even consider a compromise plan, in which four commissioners would be elected by state legislative districts and a fifth - the board's president - would be elected at large.
Carroll voters expressed their desire for districts by passing the 2004 referendum, said Sykesville activist Dana L. Dembrow. It might take a constitutional amendment to create the districts, since the delegation didn't deliver results.