Maryland congressional redistricting trial wraps up; judge to rule next week

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Attorneys for challengers to Maryland’s new congressional districts asked a judge to find the new map unconstitutional on the final day of a trial Friday.

The trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court included two lawsuits against the state’s redrawn congressional districts.

One of those challenges, Szeliga v. Lamone, is brought by Republican voters from all eight of Maryland’s congressional districts.

Strider Dickson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Szeliga case, pointed to expert testimony that the districts are non-compact and said that “traditional redistricting criteria” were thrown out in favor of partisan considerations in asking Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia to block the map.

Allan Jay Lichtman, a history professor at American University who the state called as a witness to defend the congressional maps, testified Thursday that the new districts would likely retain the same 7-1 configuration as the previous congressional map.

But Dickson pointed to shifts in the 1st Congressional District in arguing that the map unlawfully dilutes Republican votes. That district is represented by U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, Maryland’s lone congressional Republican, and saw significant shifts when lawmakers redrew it.

The 1st District was previously solidly Republican and included portions of northern Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties with the Eastern Shore, but under the enacted plan crosses the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to include parts of central Anne Arundel County with the Eastern Shore.

Dickson noted that the new lines will mean the district is now much more competitive for Democrats, and pushed back on Lichtman’s claim that the new plan will retain a 7-1 configuration.

“This is a very safe seven and a very competitive one,” Dickson said in arguing that the map violates the “free and frequent” elections provision in the Maryland constitution.

Another lawsuit, from Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) and the national conservative group Judicial Watch, likewise contends that the new congressional district map violates the state constitution because it disempowers Republican voters. That challenge additionally charges that the redistricting plan violates the Maryland Constitution, which stipulates 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.”

Historically, that provision has been interpreted to apply to state legislative and not congressional districts.

Battaglia noted that the challenges against court represent a “case of first impression,” and said congressional maps hadn’t previously been challenged in state courts.

Robert Popper, a senior attorney with Judicial Watch, said Battaglia should block the plan from taking effect this election year.

Attorneys for the state, however, argued that the plaintiffs’ hadn’t set a standard for determining how much politics is too much.

Deputy Attorney General Andrea Trento said the framers of the state constitution had entrusted the legislature with redistricting and therefore assumed that some degree of politics would be involved in the process.

Solicitor General Steven Sullivan said the state constitution is silent on congressional redistricting, and that any change to the state constitution should come via the amendment process rather than via judicial decisions.

And Robert Scott, the deputy chief of litigation for the Maryland Attorney General, argued that plaintiffs hadn’t done enough to prove that there was “too much” politics involved in the map drawing process.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs in both lawsuits focused on the new map’s non-compact districts and the ways the districts favor Democrats over Republicans in their testimony. Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and Robert Brunell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, both said they analyzed the map and found that the districts are non-compact and favor Democrats over Republicans.

Trende said Tuesday that Republicans were removed from the 1st District with “near surgical precision” in the new map. He said he ran simulations of thousands of potential district lines and found Maryland’s districts to be outliers in terms of being non-compact.

Brunell analyzed how the new district lines would play out using results from previous statewide election results going back to 2012. He said he found that Democrats generally won a higher share of seats than their share of the vote in the new map, but also found that in the 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial elections, Hogan carried five of eight newly drawn congressional districts.

The state called two witnesses during the four-day trial in arguing that the map doesn’t unlawfully dilute votes: Lichtman and former Secretary of State John T. Willis. Lichtman testified that the new congressional map is more compact than the map enacted in 2011 in arguing that the new district lines don’t constitute a gerrymander.

In enacting the map, Democratic lawmakers argued that compactness was secondary in congressional redistricting compared to population equality and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. Willis testified that lawmakers also need to consider the historical district boundaries when adjusting for population to avoid disrupting representation.

Battaglia, a former Court of Appeals judge, asked attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the state for their opinions on what should happen if she were to block to the map and what authority the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court has with regard to congressional redistricting. She noted the question would be irrelevant if she rules to maintain the new map.

All parties agreed that the General Assembly should get a chance to redraw the maps if the enacted map is blocked. Popper said the plan should be temporarily swapped with one drawn up by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, a panel convened by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), until the General Assembly enacts a new map.

Battaglia said she expects the case to head to the Court of Appeals regardless of how she rules. A trial for petitions against Maryland’s new legislative map is set to kick off at the Court of Appeals next Wednesday, with the special magistrate in that case planning to submit his report to the high court in early April.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up