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Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) and the national conservative organization Judicial Watch are suing over Maryland’s new congressional map, arguing that it violates the state constitution.
Maryland is no stranger to litigation over congressional maps: The Benisek v. Lamone case that centered around the state’s 6th Congressional District as it was drawn in 2011 made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — but justices opted not to weigh in on state-level partisan gerrymandering.
The lawsuit filed by Parrott and Judicial Watch hones in on state law rather than federal law. The plaintiffs argue that the congressional map violates Article III, Section 4 of the Maryland Constitution. That provision reads that “each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”
That provision has historically been interpreted to apply to General Assembly districts, and not the state’s congressional boundaries.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference outside of Frederick City Hall, Parrott argued that congressional maps in Maryland should respect county boundaries, and took issue with the way the state’s new congressional districts split counties.
“Montgomery County is divided into four congressional districts,” Parrott said. “There’s no reason for that. Damascus, one little town in Montgomery County, is divided into three different congressional districts. It’s not fair. It’s not right.”
The congressional map adopted by the General Assembly during a special session earlier this month was drawn up by the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, a panel created by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Jones and Ferguson are both members of that commission alongside two other Democratic legislative leaders and two Republican legislative leaders. The panel is chaired by Karl Aro, a former head of the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.
Jones and Ferguson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission proposal was vetoed by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who said he would oppose any redistricting proposal that differed from the one put forward by his multi-partisan Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission. Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, and swiftly overrode his veto of the congressional map.
The lawsuit notes that the congressional map from Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission earned an “A” from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project based on compactness, geographic features and partisan fairness, while the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission’s map received an “F” based on those same criteria.
“We all know how gerrymandering works,” Robert Popper, an attorney with Judicial Watch, said at the press conference. “Everyone knows what the signs are. It looks like this. You distort district lines, you violate political boundaries, you crush communities, and you do it in order to create a political advantage.”
While the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission opted to minimize county divisions in their proposed map, Democratic lawmakers said during the special session that drawing compact districts should be secondary to compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Maryland’s geography is unique, and our population is varied,” Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said during the special session earlier this month. “Taking all that into consideration, I am confident that this map is a fair one, and one that reflects the lived experience of Marylanders.”
Plaintiffs argue that the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission proposal “satisfied the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the federal constitutional provisions of the Equal Protection Clause” while minimizing county splits.
The lawsuit seeks to temporarily replace the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission map with the one put forward by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, Popper said, and force a redrawing of the congressional maps before the June 2022 primary elections. Republican lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate unsuccessfully attempted a similar map swap via amendments during the special session but were unsuccessful.
The plaintiffs also charge that the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission’s congressional map violates Article 7 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which guarantees the right to suffrage and free and fair elections.
Parrott unsuccessfully ran against incumbent U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md) in the 6th District in 2020 and plans to challenge Trone again in 2022.
Parrott led the charge to put Maryland’s last set of congressional maps up for referendum in 2012, but voters opted to uphold the congressional districts. Judicial Watch later sought to nullify that referendum, arguing the ballot language was misleading, but that effort was unsuccessful.
The lawsuit from Parrott and Judicial Watch is the first against Maryland’s new congressional map, but it won’t be the last: Fair Maps Maryland, an anti-gerrymandering group with ties to Hogan, said in a press release Wednesday that they plan to file a lawsuit against the congressional map on Thursday morning.