A three-judge federal court panel ruled Wednesday that the state unconstitutionally drew the boundary lines for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District to benefit Democrats, and banned the map from being used in future elections.
Because the congressional maps are interconnected, the decision effectively requires the state to alter more than just the 6th District’s outline — and sets a four-month deadline for making the changes.
The process could result in an entirely new map, or one that involves changes to a few districts. The court said “the state might be well advised to establish a neutral commission to develop a conforming plan” and said the new map will need its approval before it is used.
If the state fails to submit a plan by March 7, the court said in a separate order that it will appoint a three-member commission to do the job.
The panel ruled in favor of seven Republican plaintiffs in the redistricting case who argued their influence in the 6th District was diluted in violation of their First Amendment rights.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh was reviewing whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, spokesperson Raquel Coombs said.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan hailed the opinion.
“This is a victory for the vast majority of Marylanders who want free and fair elections and the numerous advocates from across the political spectrum who have been fighting partisan gerrymandering in our state for decades,” he said in a statement.
“With this unanimous ruling, the federal court is confirming what we in Maryland have known for a long time — that we have the most gerrymandered districts in the country, they were drawn this way for partisan reasons, and they violate Marylanders’ constitutional rights,” the governor said..
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the governor was consulting with his counsel before deciding his next steps.
It was not clear Wednesday how state House Speaker Michael Busch and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would approach the issue. The two powerful Democrats would play a key role in adopting any new map designed by the state. A spokesman said Miller declined to comment on the ruling. A spokesman for Busch could not be reached Wednesday.
Plaintiff Jerry DeWolf said he was excited about the ruling.
"Obviously, it's been a long time coming, and I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction," said Wolf, chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee.
He said the district is not winnable for Republicans in its present form and it is imbalanced because candidates from Montgomery County have disproportionate amounts of campaign money.
"We just cannot compete with Montgomery County," he said.
Congressional districts must be redrawn every 10 years to adjust to changes in population. Many government reform groups believe parties in control of state government — Democrats, at the time Maryland’s current map was drawn in 2011 — create districts with the overriding goal of maximizing their electoral advantage with “safe” districts for incumbents that discourage bipartisan cooperation.
The opinion, written by Judge Paul Niemeyer of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the record shows that the state “specifically targeted voters in the 6th Congressional District who were registered as Republicans and who had historically voted for Republican candidates.”
The opinion said Maryland “specifically intended to diminish the value of those targeted citizens’ votes by removing a substantial number of them from the 6th District and replacing them with Democratic voters for the purpose of denying, as a practical matter, the targeted voters the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.”
In a separate opinion, U.S. District Judge James Bredar wrote that gerrymandering is “noxious, a cancer on our democracy.”
Before the 2010 census, the district was configured to include all of five Maryland counties: Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington. The redrawn lines helped Democratic newcomer John Delaney defeat Republican longtime Rep. Roscoe Bartlett in 2012.
The district now stretches from the liberal Washington suburbs of Montgomery County to conservative western Maryland. Under the plan, the court said the district retained “only one-half of its original population (specifically, the residents of Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties, as well as roughly half the population of Frederick County).” The other half — some 360,000 residents — was moved out.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Maryland’s mapmakers turned an eight-member House delegation that was split 4-4 in 2000 into one that has seven Democrats and one Republican.
Delaney is stepping down to run for president in 2020, and the seat was won Tuesday by Democrat David Trone in the midterm election. Trone learned about the decision from an aide following a news conference Wednesday in Baltimore to introduce him as the newest member of Maryland’s delegation.
Trone said he supports a nonpartisan, national approach to redrawing congressional maps.
“It has to be a broader approach across the country,” he said.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in March. The voters contended that Democrats in Annapolis violated their rights with the 2011 redistricting by punishing them for their GOP voting history. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the good-government group Common Cause said Democrats decided "to take a meat cleaver and chop the 6th district almost in half."
In June, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for resolution. The high court’s ruling on technical grounds did not address the larger question: Just how far may mapmakers of either party go in pursuit of political advantage?
The lawsuit was filed in 2013. It drew renewed interest last year, when lawyers sharply questioned former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and General Assembly leaders about the motivations behind the 2011 redistricting. In a deposition, O’Malley acknowledged what was widely known but had rarely been said: Maryland Democrats used the redistricting to flip the 6th District from a reliably Republican seat to one far more competitive for their party.
Hogan, looking ahead to the state’s next planned redistricting process after the 2020 census, had called for a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Maryland Democratic leaders resisted that, saying that surrendering their power to shape the map while Republicans in other states keep theirs would amount to unilateral disarmament.
Trone said he believes gerrymandering is wrong.
“I attended the Supreme Court hearing,” the congressman-elect said. “I was disappointed that they kicked the can back down to the level below. Let’s see what happens and see where it goes.”
Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.