Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs today successfully prevailed on the U.S. Justice Department to postpone filing a lawsuit charging Voting Rights Act violations in Dorchester County.
Sachs said the suit, to have been filed today, was postponed after he objected to it on grounds that the state already was working to uncover and correct any problems.
Sachs said he was "dumbstruck" when U.S. Atty. J. Frederick Motz notified him today of the impending suit. "Three of my lawyers were on their way to Dorchester at that moment" to audit the Western Shore county for possible voting rights violations, he said. "The state is dedicated to any self-correction necessary, and hard at work doing it."
Justice Department spokesman John Wilson confirmed that Sachs asked for and won a delay. Sachs made the request to William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Civil Rights division, who told Sachs "the department is willing to work with the state or anyone to correct the situation in Dorchester as quickly as possible," according to Wilson.
Whether Sachs can win a long-term reprieve from federal action is not clear. The Voting Rights Act is a federal law, updated by Congress in 1982, which the Justice Department is required to enforce.
The 1982 updating puts in jeopardy jurisdictions such as Dorchester that elect local officials at-large, rather than by districts. Civil rights groups maintain that such at-large elections can permit whites to control all seats on boards or commissions, even though blacks may comprise a significant portion of the voting population.
Congress strengthened the act by permitting federal courts to undo at-large election systems that have been proven to exclude minorities.
Sachs last summer ordered a staff audit of 13 of Maryland's counties that elect at-large and have black populations of 10 percent or more.
He said audits have been completed in Anne Arundel and Howard, where no violations were found, and Dorchester was next on the list.
"We're as committed to full enfranchisement of Maryland voters as anyone," Sachs said. "We're talking about a 1982 law. We're on top of it. We're not dragging our feet.
"In view of the fact that my people are there today, and the next election there is not until 1986, they Justice could at least stay their hand until completion of the Dorchester audit by the end of January," Sachs said.
Sachs said he assured county officials last summer that "it was better if we self-corrected than to have to scramble at the end of a third-party lawsuit."
The filing of a federal lawsuit, said Sachs, "is a kind of piling-on that is unjustified and sends the message that there is no reward for self-correction."