In what amounted to a final blow for the Prince George’s County Council, the Maryland Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed that the council must throw out its widely panned redistricting map — a decision that will affect races already underway this election season.
Although critics decried the initial map as gerrymandered, the case’s success hinged on a procedural issue raised by a member of the council who had voted against the controversial proposal: The redistricting process was improper because it was done via a resolution rather than a bill.
Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large) said in a statement that the council would comply but believed it had the authority to pass the redistricting plan through a resolution, citing a ballot question approved in 2012. A spokesperson could not say Monday how much defending against the challenge cost taxpayers.
Former county council member Eric Olson, whom the council’s map drew out of the district in which he has lived for more than 20 years, financed the lawsuit brought by residents against the county in January. Olson, who considers himself a political progressive, was sometimes at odds with the county’s political establishment while on the council, particularly on development-related issues.
“I don’t play political games, and our residents don’t appreciate political games,” Olson said in an interview Monday. “So this is especially a good turn of events and the proper resolution.”
Olson sought advice from a number of lawyers, including county council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1), who cast one of the “no” votes in a 6-to-3 split authorizing the map. Dernoga realized the procedural error that informed the lawsuit.
The case was then carried forward by Matthew G. Sawyer, a lawyer who is one of Olson’s neighbors, and Timothy F. Maloney, a lawyer and former state delegate who spoke during oral arguments before the Court of Appeals on Friday.
Circuit court Judge William Snoddy sided with residents in late January, declaring the council’s map invalid because of the procedural error. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty affirmed Snoddy’s order in his ruling Monday and ordered the county to pay for the cost of the appeal.
“This case shows,” Dernoga said, “that a small group of self-serving politicians can’t just ignore state law or the county charter.”
County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who has largely distanced herself from the debate, said in a brief statement that she respected the rulings of the circuit court and court of appeals.
“With this matter resolved, and the redistricting map designed by the Redistricting Commission now in place, our board of elections may now move forward with redrawing the council district lines,” she said.
The months-long fight in Prince George’s, where about 85 percent of residents are Black or Latino, has been fought among Democrats, with a mostly younger, more liberal generation of leaders increasingly clashing with the county’s political establishment.
Council members who supported that map said that it was important to make District 2 majority Latino to reflect the county’s growing share of Latino residents and that their intent was not to exclude particular candidates. That argument was widely dismissed by residents, more than 150 of whom testified against the map in a public hearing, with many accusing the council majority of trying to retain power by keeping candidates including Olson and Krystal Oriadha from running.
Oriadha, another liberal candidate, moved from Seat Pleasant to Capitol Heights after the map drew her out of her district. She called the ruling by the Court of Appeals “a huge win for the community,” saying the decision has left her confident that her candidacy will not be legally challenged.
“It is sad the council wasted money and resources on fighting an issue like this instead of just listening to the community,” said Oriadha, who is challenging council member Rodney C. Streeter (D-District 7) and said she will consider moving back to the home she owns in Seat Pleasant.
Tamara Davis Brown, the third person drawn out of a district she’d considered running in, said she has decided to vie for state Senate.
Karina Elwood contributed to this report.