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Redistricting reform takes shape

Gov. Larry Hogan's redistricting commission may have been doomed from the start — its intent to reduce or eliminate gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts running at odds with the intent of the Democratic majority within the General Assembly to keep that particular weapon in their political arsenal. But at least opponents should have the decency to offer intellectually honest critiques.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway's complaint voiced during Tuesday's meeting of the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission, as reported by the Capital News Service, failed to meet that standard. To put it in a nutshell, Senator Conway, a commission member, said a proposed nine-member panel that would be created to draw legislative boundaries — a group chosen at random from applicants vetted by randomly-selected state judges and with balance given to party affiliation so that no one party would dominate — would be "as far from independent" as legislators are.

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Really? To paraphrase a popular NFL pregame show, "Come on, ma'am."

What the reform panel is proposing is about as far removed from party bosses as feasible. The nine-member group would have three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents. The three judges choosing the members from a candidate pool would be chosen at random, one from the Court of Special Appeals and two from Circuit Courts. And the candidates would have to have been Maryland residents for the past five years and not have switched parties or run for a seat in Congress or the General Assembly over that same period.

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Now, perhaps such a screening process will still produce highly biased candidates, but collectively, it's highly doubtful that the panel will heavily lean one way or another — which they'd have to do in order to meet Ms. Conway's criticism. In fact, it's worth noting that Democratic and Republican party leaders would much rather do the appointing themselves (essentially to ensure that party-affiliated members were as loyal to their parties as possible).

Now, is this the best possible way to pick those who will draw the political boundaries? Maybe, maybe not. But at least one thing is clear, the commission is headed in the proper direction. Having ordinary citizens make these decisions in a way that reflects traditional geographic and civic boundaries as well as the broad public interest (keeping the entirety of Towson University in a single congressional district, for starters) is what we believe a majority of voters want — not the bizarre Rorschach ink blots that exist today and only serve their political masters, dividing Baltimore County, for example, into four Congressional districts, including the 1st District where the majority of voters live on the Eastern Shore, which is a long way from Cockeysville.

Here's what the Democratic powers-that-be in Annapolis really believe, and it's not exactly a state secret: They say our congressional districts should be gerrymandered for the benefit of their candidates because Red State Republicans do the same thing, and a unilateral disarmament by Maryland would only help ensure a GOP majority in the House. Further, they say, there are already protections on the state legislative level that prevent the majority from going hog wild when they draw lines (as then-Gov. Parris Glendening learned when the Court of Appeals tossed his rewrite in 2002).

Now, those are intellectually honest critiques — wrongheaded and supremely self-interested, perhaps — but at least they are worthy of debate. Not so any criticism that claims the average state judge can't select a candidate without a lawmaker's level of bias. That's just Pharisaic — self-righteous, hypocritical and wrong. If judges are incapable of independence, heaven help the judiciary and any hopes for justice regarding any courtroom decision ever. Oh, and exactly how come the Democratically-appointed Court of Appeals tossed the districts drawn by a Democratic governor 13 years ago? It wasn't gerrymandered enough? That's not what they said in their decision.

So enough with the nitpicking. If the Democrats plan to quash hopes that Maryland might one day have legislative districts carved out in the best interests of its residents instead of its political leaders, let them state their reasons forthrightly. We like the idea of average citizens drawing these lines and commend Governor Hogan for pursuing redistricting reform. The best possible outcome would be to see a proposal put before Maryland voters as a constitutional amendment — let average citizens decide what's more important, keeping political power in the hands of state Democratic leaders or creating more sensible legislative districts. Or might lawmakers find the majority of Maryland voters too biased to decide?

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