WASHINGTON — A federal district court rejected a claim Thursday by seven Maryland Republicans that the state's 2011 redistricting violated their First Amendment rights, setting up another Supreme Court fight over the heavily litigated maps.
In a case closely watched by state political leaders, the court found the plaintiffs failed to meet the standard required to order an immediate redrawing of the boundaries. In a 2-1 decision, the court said it wanted to see the outcome of a separate gerrymandering claim from Wisconsin pending before the Supreme Court before deciding the Maryland lawsuit.
"The time and resources necessary to implement a new map would surely have the effect of scuttling other legislative priorities in advance of the 2018 [legislative] session," the court wrote. "The remedy would be highly consequential."
Michael B. Kimberly, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he intends to appeal — a move that will automatically put the Maryland congressional maps before the Supreme Court for the second time in as many years. Describing the state's congressional district map as a "crazy quilt," a unanimous Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed in late 2015.
But the decision Thursday meant that, for the time being, Maryland's current congressional map is likely to remain in place for the 2018 midterm elections.
Brought by a group of Republican voters, the case is one of several pending in the federal court system that rely on new legal arguments to challenge the constitutionality of political gerrymandering. The lawsuit, filed in 2013, drew particular interest in Maryland after lawyers sharply questioned former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and leaders of the General Assembly about the motivations behind the congressional districts.
In his deposition, O'Malley acknowledged what was already widely understood: that Maryland Democrats used the 2011 redistricting to flip the 6th Congressional District from a reliably Republican seat to one far more competitive for their party. A year later, Democratic Rep. John Delaney unseated 10-term incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in the district.
O'Malley, who has continued to weigh in on national politics since losing a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, has since called for nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
The federal litigation has refocused attention on the state's squirrelly congressional districts — among the least compact in the nation, according to some studies — at a time when the issue has gained new attention in Annapolis. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has also called for a nonpartisan redistricting commission, an idea Democrats in the state have rejected.
If Hogan wins a second term in next year's election, it would set the stage for a showdown with Democrats in Annapolis over the maps following the 2020 Census.
Democrats control seven of eight House seats in the state, though 41 percent of voters backed a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in 2014. Any tinkering with the current system — either through an independent commission or a negotiation with a Republican governor — could potentially loosen Democrats' grip on the delegation.
State Democrats point out that the maps were approved not only by the General Assembly but also by voters, 64 percent of whom backed the districts in a 2012 referendum. They note that Republican-controlled governments in other states draw maps to their benefit and say that unilaterally moving away from a partisan system in Maryland would give the GOP an unfair advantage.
The decision Thursday came from a three-judge panel. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, appointed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President George H.W. Bush, dissented.
"I believe that the record could not be clearer that the mapmakers specifically intended to dilute the effectiveness of Republican voters in the Sixth Congressional District and that the actual dilution that they accomplished was caused by their intent," Niemeyer wrote.
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, said that the state expected the plaintiffs to appeal and that "we will respond in the appropriate time frame."
The Supreme Court has often lamented partisan mapmaking, but the justices have failed to agree on a legal standard to decide when an effort to draw political advantage into a district crosses the line. The Wisconsin and Maryland cases are proposing different standards for how to determine whether a map is unconstitutional.
The court is set to hear arguments in that case in October.