Fifteen weeks before the primary election, a judge is to open a trial Tuesday in which Republicans seek to scrap a Democratic-approved map of Maryland’s congressional district boundary lines.
The civil trial, which could last the rest of the week, is important for a number of reasons, and its outcome bears on whether the statewide primary — which includes contests for congressional, state legislative and county offices — is held as scheduled June 28.
Here are questions and answers about the trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court and what’s at stake:
What are the allegations?
In two lawsuits being considered together, Republican elected officials and voters argue that a new map of the state’s eight U.S. House districts was unfairly drawn to favor Democrats and doesn’t abide by Maryland constitutional guidelines.
“Maryland’s last two congressional redistricting cycles have involved extreme partisan gerrymandering,” said a brief filed last week by attorneys for a group led by Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican running for the seat of Democratic Rep. David Trone in a district stretching from Montgomery County through Western Maryland. Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga is among the leaders of the second GOP group.
The new map would probably preserve the Democratic dominance in Maryland, with that party likely to retain control over seven of the eight congressional seats. The sole district represented by a Republican, the Eastern Shore-based seat of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, would become more competitive.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering occurs when mapmakers of either party orient district boundaries in pursuit of political advantage.
It 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 everywhere else.
Gerrymandering complaints often arise when one party controls the redistricting process and can maximize the number of “safe” seats it holds in which the rival party has too few voters to win.
How could the June 28 primary be affected?
Election officials were already tasked with implementing the new congressional map approved by Democratic lawmakers in December. The General Assembly overrode the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who said the new boundaries were “illegal.”
The process of integrating another new map into the election would take considerable time. After new lines are drawn and approved, elections officials must find polling places and adjust voter information to reflect those boundary shifts.
The state has indicated that any significant, court-ordered changes to the map would likely force the election to be delayed.
The election could also be pushed back by other redistricting fights. In December, three Republican state delegates and others challenged the legality of the General Assembly-approved map of delegates’ and state senators’ districts. The three delegates say the maps don’t abide by Maryland constitutional guidelines.
Alan M. Wilner, a retired judge appointed to that case, has said he hopes to file a final report by early April with the Maryland Court of Appeals, which will then rule.
What are the issues in the congressional map case?
Republicans argue in court filings that the map was “was forced by one party upon another” and contains non-compact districts with odd “twists and turns.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
The case is partly about interpreting the Maryland constitution.
A 1972 amendment to the section of the constitution on the state legislature decrees that those 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.
The Maryland Constitution includes no such rules for congressional districts, and lawyers for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat defending the state’s position, argue that the framers of the state’s constitution anticipated that politics would play a role when they assigned the job of drawing districts to state lawmakers.
Republicans accuse Frosh’s attorneys of hiding the motivation behind the maps by trying to limit their lawyers’ access to Democratic legislative staff or others who helped create the boundaries last year.
Frosh’s attorneys have said in court filings that — if necessary — they would invoke “legislative privilege,” which protects some information about legislative acts from being used in court.
“They are citing that to prevent the plaintiffs from deposing the people or materials used to create these maps,” said Doug Mayer, a former Hogan aide working with an advocacy group called Fair Maps Maryland that organized the congressional and state legislative map suits.
The congressional case is being heard by Lynne A. Battaglia, a retired state appeals court judge and former assistant U.S. attorney who was once chief of staff for former Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski.