The U.S. Supreme Court said Friday it would hear a high-profile case alleging unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering in Maryland’s redistricting process.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh appealed the case to the high court in November after a panel of federal judges threw out the state’s map for the 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Montgomery County to Western Maryland. The judges said Democratic state officials unconstitutionally drew the district’s boundaries with a goal of diminishing Republican influence.
Frosh asked the Supreme Court to hear the case in the hope of getting clear guidance on the standards Maryland political leaders need to apply when they draw their next maps.
“It is our view that Supreme Court review is needed to provide guidance to the legislature in future redistricting,” said Raquel Guillory Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh.
The Supreme Court also agreed Friday to hear a case alleging gerrymandering by Republicans in North Carolina.
The high court could come out with the first limits on partisan politics in the drawing of electoral districts, but also could ultimately decide that federal judges have no role in trying to police political mapmaking.
Michael B. Kimberly, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Maryland case, said he isn’t surprised that the Supreme Court is choosing to hear arguments on the issue.
Kimberly said the court will hear the Maryland and North Carolina cases on the same day, which he sees as a signal that the justices intend to tackle the issue of gerrymandering after years of sidestepping it.
“Taking the two cases side-by-side is going to give the court a broader range of arguments and facts on which to think about the issue, and illustrates well that this is not a partisan issue, it is a good-government issue,” said Kimberly, a Washington-based partner in the firm Mayer Brown.
While Maryland’s case involves the allegation that Democrats drew district boundaries to benefit their party and disenfranchise Republicans, the North Carolina case involves Republicans drawing districts for their benefit.
Kimberly noted the scheduling is slightly accelerated. He had expected any oral arguments to be scheduled for April, but they will be in March.
“It reflects the court’s understanding that, in this case, the timing is important,” he said.
Damon Effingham, director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said he hopes the oral arguments result in a definitive decision against gerrymandering.
“The ideal outcome would be for them to rule that partisan gerrymandering, using partisan affiliation in order to shape districts, is unconstitutional,” he said.
Common Cause has supported efforts to require the nonpartisan drawing of districts. Even if the court cases fail, Effingham is optimistic that legislation proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland or reformers in Congress could pass that would outlaw gerrymandering.
“There are multiple avenues for reform. None of them are mutually exclusive,” Effingham said.
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the governor is confident the Supreme Court would strike down Maryland’s map.
“The governor has been a fierce and consistent advocate for restoring free and fair elections to all Maryland citizens, so that Marylanders choose their representatives — not the other way around,” Chasse said. “We fully expect that the Supreme Court will uphold the unanimous decision by the federal court that Maryland’s congressional map is unconstitutionally gerrymandered and deprives voters of one of their most basic civil liberties.”
Chasse said a commission charged by Hogan with redrawing the state’s congressional district boundaries would continue its work, despite the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case. The Emergency Commission on Sixth Congressional District Gerrymandering met for the first time Friday in Annapolis, with members pledging a fair, independent process.
The commission was created by Hogan, a Republican, after the panel of federal judges ruled the district was unconstitutionally drawn. The judges ordered the state to redraw the boundaries of the district before the 2020 election.
“We want to cut down on any partisan leanings,” said the commission’s co-chairman Alexander Williams, a former federal judge. “The governor has made it very clear he wants a fair, independent and transparent job done here. … We want to make sure this is a model that other states can look at and adopt.”
Beyond the judicial ruling ordering a new 6th District by 2020, Maryland and all states are required to redraw all congressional districts after the 2020 Census to reflect population changes.
Hogan’s commission is charged with developing new 6th District boundaries to address the constitutional violations found by the judges, specifically that Democrats in Maryland drew the district in 2011 to disenfranchise Republicans. A Democratic candidate replaced a Republican incumbent after the lines were changed, and Democrats continue to hold the seat.
The nine-member commission includes three registered Democrats, three registered Republicans and three voters who are registered as unaffiliated with any party. The commission’s meetings are required to be open to the public and livestreamed.
Hogan appointed Williams, a Democrat, and Walter Olson, a Republican, as co-chairs, and named Ashley Oleson, an unaffiliated voter, to serve on the commission.
The commission also set tentative dates for hearings and its next meeting. The commission will accept testimony from the public in Frederick County on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m., in Montgomery County on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. and in Allegany County on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. Exact locations will be announced later. On Feb. 20, the commission will meet again to continue its work.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, both Democrats, have said they are waiting for the federal appeals process to play out before determining how they will proceed on redrawing congressional districts.
The Supreme Court is likely to rule before its term comes to a close in June.
In a recent interview, Busch said that if the Supreme Court ordered Maryland to create a new congressional map, legislative leaders would call a special session to do so this summer.