ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Lawyers argued before Maryland’s highest court on Wednesday over the constitutionality of the state’s legislative map, and the chief judge asked questions about specific districts — if the court were to hypothetically overrule a special magistrate’s recommendation not to make any changes to the map.
The map designates boundaries for 188 seats in the state legislature and was approved in January by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, despite claims of gerrymandering. Attorneys who are challenging the new map focused on the lack of compactness of certain districts in the middle of the state.
Strider Dickson, an attorney for the plaintiffs who include several Republican lawmakers, said there could be a good reason why a district isn’t drawn compactly, such as for confining geographical boundaries, but compactness still must be considered.
“There’s just been no evidence that it was at all considered, and I think as we get to the districts we’ve challenged ... in the middle of the state, there’s no geographical constraints placed on those districts so that they can’t be compact,” Dickson said.
Dickson said he’s asking the Court of Appeals to direct the General Assembly to redraw the map to correct any deficiencies the court finds. If the legislature can’t do that, he recommended the court appoint its own special master to redraw the map or to adopt a separate plan submitted by a panel that is supported by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Democrats had previously also approved the state’s congressional map, but a judge struck down the state’s congressional map in March, concluding it was a “product of extreme partisan gerrymandering.” The legislature redrew the map to make the eight U.S. House districts more compact, and Hogan signed the legislation last week.
The General Assembly ended its 90-day legislative session Monday.
Ann Sheridan, an assistant attorney general who is defending the map, said the case is based on the shape of the districts — and that alone doesn’t provide compelling evidence that the constitution has been violated. She also noted that the map is based on prior districts, drawn in accordance to the law.
“If the court were to accept petitioners’ argument, you essentially would be throwing out the rule book,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan also argued that if the court forced lawmakers to redraw the map, “what the court is doing is taking away from the legislature that which rests with them under the constitution.”
Chief Judge Joseph Getty specifically asked Sheridan questions relating to District 12, in the context of a hypothetical decision by the court to overrule the special magistrate’s recommendation not to change districts due to a lack of compactness. He asked her if she could provide the court with other constitutional requirements relating to the shape of that district, which stretches from Howard County into Anne Arundel.
“We didn’t get into that analysis because there is no need — and the precedence of this court are quite clear — that there’s no need for the state to put on any of that evidence unless the petitioner first comes forward with compelling evidence,” Sheridan said.
Getty noted that the court could still overrule the special magistrate’s findings. He also asked about a hypothetical overruling of the special magistrate for a finding that District 21 is not compact.
The judge also expressed interest in District 27, which includes a part of Prince George’s County in the suburbs of the nation’s capital and stretches down into rural southern Maryland. The district is being challenged because it crosses the Patuxent River, Sheridan said, noting that the district as drawn by the Court of Appeals in 2002 also did that.
“There’s just no constitutional violation here,” Sheridan said.
Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who reviewed the map as a special magistrate in the case, concluded that while compactness of districts is important, it’s not the only factor. He also noted that the state’s primary, already once delayed due to court challenges, is scheduled for July 19.
“The problem is one of time,” Wilner wrote, adding that changing the map so close to the primary “can create as much mischief as it resolves.”