The Maryland Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected a challenge to a General Assembly-approved map of state legislative districts that multiple lawsuits from Republican politicians and voters contended violated provisions of the state’s constitution.
The ruling allows the new districts for electing members of the General Assembly to go into effect for the July 19 primary elections without further delay. The filing deadline for candidates wishing to appear on the ballot is Friday at 9 p.m.
The plaintiffs primarily alleged that about a dozen districts on the map are irregularly shaped or weave across rivers or county lines in a way that violates provisions in the state constitution. The constitution calls for legislative districts to be compact and for lawmakers to respect natural geographic boundaries and the borders of political subdivisions, like counties or cities, while drawing the maps.
But Alan M. Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge appointed to oversee the case, had recommended in a lengthy report filed last week upholding the General Assembly’s maps and rejecting the Republican lawsuits. Wilner had heard extensive expert testimony about the maps during a two-day hearing in late March.
His recommendation was considered by the appeals court before it ruled after a Wednesday hearing.
In his recommendation, Wilner wrote that compactness “is clearly an important element and, in some instances, may be dispositive because of its nexus to gerrymandering. But it is not the only element, and historically has been regarded as being subject to other considerations.”
Those considerations, he wrote, include ensuring districts have equal populations and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act barring election-related discrimination.
One group of plaintiffs included Republican state delegates Mark Fisher of Calvert County, Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County and Kathy Szeliga, who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties. Other challenges, including another filed by state lawmakers, were heard simultaneously.
Those Republican delegates and others accused Democrats, who controlled the redistricting process and hold wide majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, of skewing the map to give their party an advantage in elections.
Fair Maps Maryland, an advocacy group aligned with plaintiffs in the case, had challenged Wilner’s conclusion, but the high court disagreed, finding the map “consistent with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Maryland.”
The court issued a five-page order and said it will give its reasons later in an opinion.
“Maryland history will not remember this day kindly,” Doug Mayer, spokesman for Fair Maps, said in a statement issued Wednesday evening. “The idea that the same toxic process that produced the unconstitutional congressional map also produced a constitutional legislative map is inconceivable.”
“We appreciate the Court of Appeals recognizing the General Assembly followed the Maryland and U.S. Constitutions when drawing a new state map,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson said in a joint statement. “Democracy has been well served today.”
About four hours before Wednesday’s ruling was made public, the lawyers seeking to overturn the new legislative districts appeared before the Court of Appeals to ask that it reject Wilner’s recommendations and strike down the map. A panel of seven judges heard the case, one via video.
A victory in the legal challenges, would have forced a hasty redrawing of the electoral lines and could have upended plans for Maryland’s already delayed primary.
Elections officials had warned in a legal filing on Monday that a Court of Appeals decision throwing out the legislative maps would leave them too little time to implement any changes before the July primary. The State Board of Elections also warned that postponing the primary later than Aug. 16 would endanger plans for the Nov. 8 general election.
During the arguments, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, three sets of lawyers suing to overturn the maps reiterated their contentions that Democratic lawmakers ran afoul of the state constitution while crafting the boundaries.
Two of the lawsuits, taken together, pointed to about a dozen districts drawn for seats in the House of Delegates, contending lines that stretch into odd shapes, jump over rivers without a bridge, or cross county borders should be deemed illegal. Another lawsuit challenged Maryland’s long-standing practice of using a mix of smaller single- and larger multimember districts for the House of Delegates, saying it treats voters represented by a single delegate unfairly.
Assistant Attorney General Ann Sheridan, who defended the maps on behalf of the legislature, countered that the mandate for map drawers to give “due regard” to boundaries like county and city lines is just one of several competing requirements. Sheridan said the legal challengers hadn’t offered enough proof that lawmakers overstepped when crafting the map.
Sheridan repeatedly pointed to the General Assembly districts drawn in 2002 by the Court of Appeals after it struck down maps proposed by Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening. That map, which Sheridan said was drawn without partisan political influence and strictly followed constitutional requirements, included a number of oddly shaped districts that crossed county lines. It also used a mix of multi- and single-member districts.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Sheridan contended that the map approved by the General Assembly in December was largely based on district lines crafted in 2012 that withstood repeated legal challenges, with most changes necessitated by population changes in different parts of the state.
Maryland Republicans had scored separate a legal victory earlier this year in legal challenges to proposal new congressional district lines, also approved by the General Assembly, that would have strengthened the Democratic Party’s hold on seven of the state’s eight U.S. House seats.
Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, a retired Court of Appeals judge appointed to handle those cases, struck down that map as unconstitutional and called it “extreme partisan gerrymandering” by Democrats.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, initially planned to appeal Battaglia’s decision, but dropped the appeal after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan agreed to sign off on another congressional map passed by Democrats in the General Assembly. The final map appears to still favor Democrats, but gives Republicans a much better shot at holding one congressional seat and possibly challenging for another.
Battaglia was a judge on the Court of Appeals in 2002 when it struck down the General Assembly’s legislative map and crafted its own. Getty, the current chief judge, was a Republican state delegate at the time and was among the plaintiffs behind the successful lawsuit.
Maryland has 47 state senators, each having their own district, and 141 delegates.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.