Maryland attorney general appeals judges' order to redraw congressional districts, seeks Supreme Court ruling

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced Thursday that he is appealing a federal ruling that threw out the state’s congressional map for the 6th District after determining that Democratic officials unconstitutionally drew the boundary to diminish Republican influence.

The Democratic attorney general, acting against the wishes of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, notified the U.S. District Court in Baltimore Thursday that he will contest last week’s order that the state redraw the map in time for the 2020 election.

A Hogan spokeswoman criticized Frosh for an action that will further drag out debate over a district widely viewed as one of the most heavily gerrymandered in the nation.

According to the filing, Frosh wants the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in the hope of getting clear guidance on the standards Maryland political leaders need to apply when they draw their next maps.

Michael Kimberly, a lawyer for the seven Republican voters who are plaintiffs in the case, said he would have preferred no appeal but welcomes the opportunity to argue before the high court. He said the justices so far have not settled on a standard for defining partisan gerrymandering.

“I do look forward to defending what I think is a very strong decision by the District Court,” Kimberly said.

The filing says that the three judges who ordered new 6th District borders offered differing theories of how the First Amendment applies to redrawing district lines. Frosh’s motion says it would be unwise for Maryland to begin drawing a new map for 2020 when the Supreme Court could adopt a different standard in a North Carolina gerrymandering case that appears to be heading to the top court.

The governor and General Assembly had planned to draw new district lines after the 2020 U.S. Census for use in the 2022 election. States must redraw their congressional maps every decade to reflect population changes.

But the three-judge panel — with two judges from the district court and one from the region’s federal appeals court — ordered a new map for the 6th District in time for the 2020 election. That’s because the judges found that the state’s Democratic leaders in 2011 unconstitutionally redrew the congressional district lines with the goal of “flipping” the Western Maryland district from Republican to Democratic.

The strategy worked. Democrats seized the seat in 2012 and have held it ever since. The state’s congressional delegation went from a 6-2 Democratic majority to a 7-1 advantage.

Hogan had urged Frosh last week to accept the judges’ order.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said Thursday that Frosh’s decision to appeal was outrageous. She also said the Democratic leaders of the state legislature supported Frosh’s move.

Hogan will continue to push for putting redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission and will reintroduce such legislation in the session that begins in January, she said.

“Marylanders are sick and tired of partisan gerrymandering and the partisan politicians who defend it, and would better serve their constituents by working with us to create a nonpartisan process instead of continuing to disenfranchise voters,” Chasse said.

Two of the architects of the current map are House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats. Through spokesmen, both referred questions about the appeal to Frosh. A spokesman for the lead defendant in this case, State Board of Elections administrator Linda Lamone, did not immediately return calls.

Raquel Guillory Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, said the attorney general’s office would have no comment beyond the filing.

The judges ruled that the state must draw a new map that must consider natural boundaries, the outlines of subdivisions and population density. And they said the mapmakers must make decisions “without considering how citizens are registered to vote or have voted in the past.”

The panel gave the state until March 7 to come up with a new map, which could affect just the 6th District or its neighboring 8th District and others. If Maryland fails to produce a new map under that daunting deadline, the court would put the job in the hands of a three-member commission.

Thursday’s motion seeks a stay of that timeline. It says that if the high court were to upholds the three-judge panel’s decision by the end of its term June 24, Maryland would be able to deliver a new map by Oct. 19 of next year — in time for state election officials to implement the new map in time for use in the 2020 election. Kimberly said the plaintiffs had agreed to the new timeline.

If the state wins its appeal, there would be no effect on the 2020 election.

Some opponents of gerrymandering were not unhappy about Frosh’s decision to appeal.

“We’re glad that Attorney General Frosh is taking this to the Supreme Court,” said Damon Effingham, Maryland executive director of the citizen watchdog group Common Cause. “We would love to see this set a precedent and standard for the rest of the country and believe this is a great opportunity to do so.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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