A three-judge panel hearing a challenge to Maryland’s once-in-a-decade redistricting plan expressed disbelief on Tuesday when a state lawyer argued there was no evidence Democrats had gerrymandered the state’s Congressional map.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Maryland) pleaded with state lawmakers in October to reject a new congressional map by Gov. Martin O'Malley's redistricting commission. Edwards argued it would dilute the voting power of minorities in Montgomery County for the purpose of unseating the state's senior GOP lawmaker, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett. (Aaron C. Davis/WASHINGTON POST)

But the judges expressed even more skepticism that members of a grassroots civil rights group and their Republican-funded legal team had proved Maryland lawmakers intentionally diluted the voting power of minorities.

The odd coalition of plaintiffs – mostly black community organizers from Prince George’s County and the conservative-funded Legacy Foundation – argued that the surging minority population in Washington’s Maryland suburbs was carved up to help elect or re-elect white Democrats.

The plaintiffs asked the judges to toss out the map and require a new one consolidating blacks in a third majority-minority district.

“It seems … you want us to make a political decision,” 4th Circuit Court Judge Paul V. Niemeyer told the plaintiff’s lead attorney near the end of a three-hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Niemeyer promised the panel would attempt to rule quickly so that Maryland’s scheduled April 3 primary election could go forward if the map withstands the legal scrutiny.

But the judges also appeared to be searching for a rationale to improve the map, suggesting at several turns that they viewed the plan proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and approved by the state’s Democratically-controlled legislature as deeply flawed.

“There is no evidence a partisan gerrymander happened here,” Assistant State’s Attorney Dan Friedman said in defending the state’s map.

“You can’t be serious about that, can you?” Niemeyer replied. “I think Rep. Roscoe Bartlett would see it differently,” he added, referring to the 10-term, Western-Maryland Republican whose district was redrawn to include nearly 350,000 Democrats in Frederick and Montgomery counties.

District Court judges Alexander Williams Jr., and Roger W. Titus also questioned a new law passed by the legislature that required the state to count prisoners at their last known address before incarceration.

The judges said the move seemed to increase the voting strength of Baltimore and other urban areas where most prisoners had lived. They questioned why the state wasn’t as concerned with such counts of college students, and members of the military stationed in the state.

To carry out the state’s scheduled primary, Friedman said elections officials need a ruling from the court as soon as possible.

Maryland needs “every single day” between now and April 3 to prepare, he said.