A panel of federal judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state officials in Maryland violated the U.S. Constitution by redrawing the boundaries of the state’s 6th Congressional District to favor Democrats. Wednesday’s unanimous decision requires Maryland state officials to draw district lines for the 6th and 8th Districts again before the 2020 election. Governor Larry Hogan (R) said of the decision, “With this unanimous ruling, the federal court is confirming what we in Maryland have known for a long time — that we have the most gerrymandered districts in the country, they were drawn this way for partisan reasons, and they violate Marylanders’ constitutional rights.” Hogan was re-elected on Tuesday for a second term.
The good-government group Common Cause argued in an amicus curiae that Democrats decided "to take a meat cleaver and chop the 6th district almost in half."
On March 28, an earlier iteration of the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court when the justices reviewed several similar challenges to alleged partisan gerrymandering. However, the Supreme Court did not resolve the cases, returning them to lower courts on procedural and jurisdictional grounds.
Encompassing the wealthy liberal suburbs of Washington D.C., the 6th District runs into rural, western regions of Maryland that are replete with conservative voters. It is the second largest district in Maryland. Maryland Democrats redrew the district after the 2010 census so as to bring in thousands of voters in the D.C. area in a successful bid to out veteran incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican. Bartlett lost by 20 percentage points despite having been in office with little serious opposition since 1992. He was replaced by Rep. John Delaney (D).
Republicans challenged the lines redrawn to the Democrats’ liking. Republicans have complained that the district is imbalanced and unwinnable for the GOP candidates from suburban Montgomery County have disproportionate amounts of campaign cash available. They argued that the lines were made in order to punish voters in the western part of the state for traditionally supporting Republican candidates. They successfully argued that this is a form of retaliation that is prohibited by the First Amendment. Judge Paul Niemeyer agreed with the plaintiffs. The opinion, written by Niemeyer, said that state officials “specifically targeted voters in the 6th Congressional District who were registered as Republicans and who had historically voted for Republican candidates.” Furthermore, he found that the state “specifically intended to diminish the value of those targeted citizens’ votes by removing a substantial number of them from the 6th District and replacing them with Democratic voters for the purpose of denying, as a practical matter, the targeted voters the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.”
In his opinion for the three-judge panel, Niemeyer wrote that state had violated voters’ rights of representation and free association and that the case is “replete with direct evidence of this precise purpose.” Writing separately, Judge James Bredar defined partisan gerrymandering as “noxious, a cancer on our democracy.” Bredar was appointed by former President Barack Obama, while Niemeyer was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.
The panel’s decision would require Maryland to alter more than just the 6th District’s border because of its interconnectedness with other districts. The decision also set a four-month deadline for making the changes. The process could involve changes to just a few districts or in an entirely new political map for the state. The court ruled that Maryland “might be well advised to establish a neutral commission to develop a conforming plan” and the resulting new map will need its approval before it is used.
In a separate order, the court ruled that if Maryland fails to submit a plan by March 7, the court will appoint a three-member commission to do the job.
Newly re-elected Maryland state Attorney General Brian Frosh is reviewing whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
House Speaker Michael Busch and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both of whom are Democrats, will play key roles in adopting a new district map for Maryland.
The state’s 6th District as drawn before the 2010 census to include all of five Maryland counties: Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington. After the census, Democrats redrew the lines in 2011 to carve out districts in order to maximize their electoral advantage with “safe” districts for incumbents that discourage bipartisan cooperation. According to the court ruling, the Democrats created a district that kept “only one-half of its original population (specifically, the residents of Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties, as well as roughly half the population of Frederick County).” The other half of the population or approximately 360,000 residents was moved out.
As a result, Maryland’s mapmakers allowed Democrats to turn an eight-member House of Delegates that was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans to one where there are currently one Republican and seven Democrats.
Rep. Delaney is stepping down from his seat to run as a Democrat for the presidency in 2020, being the first major Democrat to officially announce. Democrat David Trone was elected in the midterm election on Tuesday to fill his seat.
Last year, when lawyers questioned former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and General Assembly leaders about the 2011 redistricting, O’Malley acknowledged in a deposition that Democrats used the redistricting to flip the 6th District to the Democrats.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.