The high-stakes legal battle over political gerrymandering in Maryland heads to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The justices are slated to hear oral arguments in a case that centers around one Maryland congressional district but that could change how congressional districts are drawn throughout the country.
Maryland’s 6th District is at the heart of the lengthy legal battle over whether Democrats violated the Constitution when they reconfigured district lines in a way that boosted their party.
The lawsuit was first filed by Republicans arguing that Democrats had infringed on their rights to representation in Congress. Following the 2011 redistricting that brought more Democrats into the 6th District while removing Republicans, a Democrat ousted longtime Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in 2012. Bartlett had held the seat since 1993.
A Maryland federal district court in August 2017 refused to grant challengers’ request to force the state to use a new map ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The Supreme Court heard an appeal to that lower court’s decision last spring, but declined to throw out the map.
The federal district court ruled in November 2018 that the “plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated that Maryland’s 2011 redistricting law violates the First Amendment by burdening both the plaintiffs’ representational rights and associational rights based on their party affiliation and voting history.” The court barred the state from using the 2011 redistricting plan after the 2018 election and demanded a new map before the 2020 congressional elections.
Maryland’s attorney general, Democrat Brian E. Frosh, appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. He argues that this is not a case of politicians entrenching themselves in power against the people’s will and that the 2011 plan was created after significant input from voters.
Rep. David J. Trone, a freshman Democrat who now represents the contested region, has also defended the contours of his 6th District.
In a brief to the Supreme Court earlier this year, his lawyers wrote, “Mr. Trone believes the people of the district today, while broadly split among the two major political parties, are not deeply conservative or liberal, but instead are united by a pragmatism and industriousness that suits his background and personality.”
Among those backing the GOP voters in the case are Maryland’s Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and former California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
They submitted a brief asking the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s decision to require new maps.
“Where extreme partisan gerrymandering exists, district lines are drawn in a manner that ensures that all seats remain safe. In such districts, elections are as predictable as a Harlem Globetrotters game. It may be theoretically possible for a party to lose a gerrymandered district, but it is highly unlikely,” they wrote.
Hogan is expected to attend the oral arguments Tuesday and will speak, with Schwarzenegger, at a rally in front of the Supreme Court sponsored by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Hogan and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) penned an op-ed in The Washington Post Monday morning arguing that redistricting ought to be taken out of politicians’ hands.
Hogan late last year selected members of a nonpartisan commission to redraw the districts. That panel earlier this month released a proposed new map, which Hogan is expected to introduce to the General Assembly before it adjourns on April 8. But it’s considered highly unlikely that the legislature will consider the new map while the case is pending before the Supreme Court.
The high court will also hear arguments Tuesday in another case that looks at whether North Carolina’s 2016 congressional map is an example of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.
The justices are expected to issue opinions in the Maryland and North Carolina cases before the term ends in June. If the Supreme Court orders Maryland to put a new map in place before the 2020 election, that will necessitate a special session of the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, House Democrats on Capitol Hill have passed legislation that would require states to use independent redistricting commissions, although it’s not expected to see a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Maryland Rep. John P. Sarbanes, the lead sponsor of the sweeping House voting reform and anti-corruption bill, said he wants redistricting reforms to be national and not state by state.
“I just don’t think you can implement that kind of a solution in some places and not others,” he said. That could end up “intensifying the political battle in the places where you don’t have those commissions.”