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Politics

Finding ‘extreme’ gerrymandering in Maryland’s new congressional map, judge orders do-over

A Maryland judge on Friday rejected a General Assembly-approved map of the state’s congressional districts that had been challenged by Republicans, calling it “a product of extreme partisan gerrymandering.”

Two GOP groups contended the map was unfairly drawn to favor Democrats and doesn’t abide by Maryland constitutional guidelines.

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In her decision, Lynne A. Battaglia, a retired state appeals court judge assigned to the Anne Arundel Circuit Court case, sided with the Republican challengers who had argued the map was drawn with “partisanship as a predominant interest.” She agreed with testimony stating Republican voters and candidates “are substantially adversely impacted by the 2021 plan.”

Battaglia gave state legislators five days until March 30 to develop a new congressional plan that abides by the state constitution.

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State Attorney General Brian Frosh, who defended the map, can appeal. Raquel Combs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, said no decision has been made about whether an appeal will be filed.

Gov. Larry Hogan, an outspoken critic of partisan gerrymandering who backed an unsuccessful legal challenge to Maryland’s previous congressional maps, called Friday’s ruling an “historic milestone.”

Hogan had pitched letting an independent commission draw Maryland’s maps instead, something the Democrat-controlled General Assembly rejected. Last year, Hogan appointed a panel of Republicans, Democrats and independents to draw an alternate set of proposed electoral maps, which the governor submitted to the legislature.

In response to Battaglia’s ruling on Friday, Hogan again urged state lawmakers to adopt the map drawn by his commission.

“For nearly eight years, we have been fighting to end the gerrymandering monopoly that has for too long been a shameful legacy of our state,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “This ruling is a monumental victory for every Marylander who cares about protecting our democracy, bringing fairness to our elections and putting the people back in charge. It puts in plain view the partisan, secretive and rigged process that led to the legislature’s illegal and unconstitutional maps.”

In two lawsuits considered by the judge together, Republicans argued that partisan gerrymandering of the congressional districts by Democratic state lawmakers violated provisions in the state constitution.

One suit was filed by Fair Maps Maryland, an anti-gerrymandering advocacy group tied to Hogan. The other was brought by the national conservative activist group Judicial Watch on behalf of 10 Republican voters in the state, including two Republican congressional candidates, state Del. Neil Parrott and Jeff Werner.

A 1972 amendment to the section of the constitution on the state legislature decrees that its legislative districts “shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form and of substantially equal population” and that lawmakers must consider natural boundaries and the borders of political subdivisions like counties and cities.

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Lawyers for Frosh defended the map, arguing the Maryland Constitution doesn’t specifically apply the same rules for congressional districts.

But the Republican plaintiffs argued that the constitution’s allusion to “legislative districts” was meant to be generic and to cover congressional districts as well as state legislative maps.

Battaglia found the map violated the state constitution’s equal protection and free speech clauses as well as a clause that protects participation in elections.

Battaglia appeared to be persuaded by the testimony of Sean Trende, an election analyst for RealClearPolitics, who testified on behalf of the Republican plaintiffs. The retired judge repeatedly quoted Trende’s arguments and analysis in her order.

“It is clear from Mr. Trende’s testimony that Republican voters and candidates are substantially adversely impacted by the 2021 plan,” Battaglia wrote.

Fair Maps Maryland, one of the plaintiffs, heralded the decision as a “win for democracy.”

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“Judge Battaglia’s ruling confirms what we have all known for years — Maryland is ground zero for gerrymandering, our districts and political reality reek of it, and there is abundant proof that it is occurring,” the group said in a statement.

In Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 and Democrats hold a strong majority in both chambers of the legislature, the GOP has long criticized the state’s congressional map as one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.

The map Battaglia struck down was drawn by a commission made up of leaders from the General Assembly, four Democrats and two Republicans. The commission was chaired by Karl Aro, the retired former head of the nonpartisan Bureau of Legislative Services who played a key role in redistricting in Maryland over several decades.

Democratic leaders have said the map creates more compact districts and makes six of the eight districts at least somewhat more competitive. The maps must be redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts determined by the national census.

Democrats currently hold a 7-1 advantage over the GOP in the state’s eight U.S. House seats. The state’s lone Republican congressman, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, represents the 1st Congressional District that includes the Eastern Shore and a portion of Baltimore County.

In the now overturned congressional map, the 1st District was altered to remove some Republican areas and extended into Democratic areas of Anne Arundel County, potentially making the seat more competitive, according to some analysis.

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If the case comes before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, all but one of the serving judges have been appointed by Hogan.

Chief Judge Joseph Getty last week delayed the state’s primary from June 28 to July 19 amid all the map challenges.

State Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker Adrienne A. Jones released a joint statement saying they were disappointed by the decision. Additionally, “it is not representative of the historic and long-standing legal requirements and precedent which the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission took seriously when drawing Maryland’s new congressional map,” the pair said.

It was too soon Friday to know what a new map might look like or how much it might benefit Harris and other GOP candidates.

Courts around the country have been dealing this year with complaints of alleged “gerrymandering.” Gerrymandering commonly involves stacking large numbers of the opposite party’s voters into a limited number of districts, leaving that party with too few voters to compete elsewhere.

So far courts have intervened to block maps they found to be GOP gerrymanders in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, infuriating Republicans and leading conservatives to push for the U.S. Supreme Court to limit the power of state courts to overturn maps drawn by state legislatures.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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