The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Monday a lower court's ruling upholding Maryland's new congressional redistricting plan, which counts inmates as living at their last-known addresses instead of in their prison cells. But it may not be the last word on the matter.
Some Republican lawmakers opposed to the map, drawn once each decade based on U.S. census counts, have until Saturday to submit the nearly 56,000 signatures needed to put it on the November ballot and let voters decide whether the plan stays.
They claim Gov. Martin O'Malley and leaders in the House and Senate unfairly separated districts to maximize their party's advantage and give Democrats a good shot at seizing the 6th District seat held by Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.
Civil rights advocates laud the map's new system of counting prisoners as living in their home districts.
The change, enacted as part of the state's "No Representation without Population Act" of 2010, boosted Baltimore's population by about 0.9 percent, or 5,700 people, and shrank Somerset County's by more than 10 percent, or 2,700 people.
Liberal groups and urban-area lawmakers hailed the numbers shift as a first-in-the-nation civil rights victory because it stopped padding the population count in rural prison towns, artificially inflating their voting power. But others decried it as a power-play for metropolitan areas like Baltimore and Prince George's County.
A month after the count was adjusted in October, a conservative group in Iowa, the Legacy Foundation, funded a federal lawsuit — organized by a Prince George's County political action committee — challenging the redistricting plan. It claimed, among other things, that the changes hurt black voters by diluting their voting strength and violating their constitutional rights, moving them based on race. Maryland's prison population is overwhelmingly African-American.
A three-judge panel found no such discrimination, however, and ruled in favor of the state in December. The plaintiffs in the case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court solely on the prison count issue, and the justices issued an order Monday affirming the panel's finding.
A message left with the Legacy Foundation was not returned Monday.
Civil rights activists have long condemned a federal census practice of counting prisoners as correctional-facility residents, even though they can't vote there.
"The Supreme Court's ruling is a huge victory for the national campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering," Brenda Wright, vice president for legal strategies at the liberal public-policy group Demos, said in a statement. "This decision sets an important precedent that will encourage other states to reform their redistricting laws."
Three others states have since passed laws similar to Maryland's 2010 act, according to Demos: Delaware, New York and California.