Democratic Gerrymander Struck Down by Maryland Federal Court

(Bloomberg) -- A Maryland federal court ordered the state to redraw its congressional district map, the latest in a string of closely watched rulings on how boundaries are shaped for political advantage.

A three-judge panel on Wednesday decided in favor of challengers who complained that the state’s sixth-district lines were moved in 2011 to change the area from Republican to Democratic. The panel called the gerrymander unconstitutional and ordered the state to redraw its map for use in the 2020 congressional elections.

Congressional redistricting has been a flashpoint across the country. Republicans in particular have wielded the technique expertly to get a lock on many districts. Courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina earlier this year rejected maps that tilted outcomes in favor of the GOP. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court substantially sided with Texas Republicans in a long-running clash over that state’s congressional and state election boundaries.

The recent spate of rulings form a kind of ad hoc guidance on what boundary-drawing methods may be tolerated and which may be struck down.

In the Maryland case, seven Republican residents of the state’s sixth district sued to invalidate the map in 2013, contending it was part of a plan to change the already dominant 6-2 congressional makeup Democrats in the state enjoyed to 7-1. To do so, officials shifted 66,000 Republicans out of the district and added about 24,000 Democrats, a swing of about 90,000 voters, the panel said.

That brought about “the single greatest alteration of voter makeup in any district in the nation following the 2010 census,” violating the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of representation and association, the court ruled.

This was the first redistricting case based on the premise that such practices violate those rights, as opposed to equal protection principles, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Michael Kimberly, an attorney in the Washington office of Mayer Brown LLP, said in an interview. The North Carolina case, filed later, proceeded from a similar legal theory. Kimberly said he hopes the Supreme Court will consider them together.

The North Carolina case is currently before the high court, which would hear any appeal in the Maryland case.

“We don’t yet know what the replacement map will look like,” Kimberly said. It may be in use for just the 2020 election, as the state will be redistricting again in 2021, he said.

For now, “all eyes are on the state” and whether it will seek a reversal, he said.

“We are reviewing our options,” said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

On Tuesday, Democrats took back control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections, capturing at least 222 of the chamber’s 435 seats. With the now-invalid Maryland map in play, Democrat David Trone defeated Republican Amie Hoeber in their race to succeed Democrat John Delaney, who first won the seat in 2012.

The case is Benisek v. Lamone, 13-cv-3233, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Baltimore).

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