Federal judges in Maryland on Wednesday blocked the state from using its congressional voting map in future elections, ordering political leaders to draw new electoral lines for contests in 2020.
The three-judge panel unanimously threw out the congressional map in a long-running partisan gerrymandering case. The decision gives Maryland officials until March to submit a new redistricting plan.
The judges acknowledged the inherently political redistricting process but declared the boundaries unconstitutional and intentionally designed to target Republican voters in the 6th Congressional District because of their political affiliation.
“When political considerations are taken into account to an extreme, the public perceives an abuse of the democratic process,” wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. He was joined by U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III.
Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the overall judgment and declaring partisan gerrymandering “noxious, a cancer on our democracy.”
If the state is unable to meet the deadline for creating a new map, the court’s order establishes a commission that will create a map of its own.
The Wednesday ruling can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which in June avoided answering the question of when extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional in the Maryland case and in another map case from Wisconsin.
The office of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), which defended the map, said Wednesday that it is reviewing its options. Legislative leaders declined to comment on the court’s order.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who won reelection Tuesday, called the decision “a victory for the vast majority of Marylanders who want free and fair elections.”
“We remain steadfastly committed to moving forward in an open and transparent manner that is free of the partisan influence that has dominated the redistricting process in Maryland for far too long,” said Hogan, who has pushed for a constitutional amendment that would have an independent redistricting commission redraw boundaries.
At the core of the issue is the 6th District in Western Maryland, which was redrawn in 2011 to include parts of heavily Democratic Montgomery County. Democratic mapmakers moved hundreds of thousands of voters from Western Maryland out of the 6th District and added Democrats from Montgomery.
The lawsuit was brought by seven Republican voters who lived in the 6th District before the boundaries were reset.
In its ruling Wednesday, the three-judge panel declared the district unconstitutional and found that the state intended to lessen the influence of GOP voters by replacing them with Democrats in violation of the First Amendment right to political association.
“The massive and unnecessary reshuffling of the Sixth District, involving one-half of its population and dictated by party affiliation and voting history, had no other cause than the intended actions of the controlling Democratic officials to burden Republican voters by converting the District” into a Democratic one, Niemeyer wrote in his 59-page opinion.
The court ruling came a day after Democrat David Trone defeated Republican Amie Hoeber by a wide margin in that district, in what was considered the most competitive of Maryland’s House contests.
In a deposition in the case, former governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, was blunt about the partisan mapmaking he oversaw, saying Democratic leaders intentionally redrew the districts to try to give their party an advantage.
“Yesterday’s results confirm what we’ve been saying all along. The 6th District isn’t really competitive for Republicans,” said attorney Michael B. Kimberly, who represents the group of Maryland Republicans.
The ruling rejected the argument from the attorney general’s office that Democratic leaders intended only to make the 6th District more competitive.
“It is impossible to flip a seat to the Democrats without flipping it away from the Republicans,” Niemeyer wrote. “There can be no doubt that at every stage of the process, the State’s Democratic officials who put the 2011 redistricting plan in place specifically intended to flip control of the Sixth District from Republicans to Democrats and then acted on that intent.”
The ruling applies to the entire Maryland congressional map as drawn in 2011, but the challengers have proposed a modification at the border between the 6th and 8th districts that could address the court’s concerns without affecting the shape of the other districts.
Before the ruling Wednesday, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) cast doubt on the possibility of an independent commission without a sign-on from other states — Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — to ensure Maryland Democrats are not at a political disadvantage on Capitol Hill.
“To put that in play without all of those states having to abide by the same rules is not going to happen,” Miller said.