Two reapportionment law specialists have told the City Council that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's redistricting proposal is vulnerable to a lawsuit, washing a wave of uncertainty over nervous council members who now seem intent on amending the plan.
The mayor's plan is "somewhat of a casebook example of violating the Voting Rights Act," said Jeffrey M. Wice, one of the lawyers who addressed the council during a hearing yesterday.
Wice and a legal colleague, Wayne R. Arden, told the council that the most glaring problem with Schmoke's plan is that it continues the apparent "packing" of black voters into West Baltimore's 4th Councilmanic District. Under the plan, the district would be 90 percent black -- which would be its lowest black percentage since 1971.
To short-circuit a challenge to the Schmoke plan, the lawyers advised, the council should amend the plan so that the 4th would have a reduced black population and create at least one other district with a substantial black majority.
Three districts -- the 2nd, 4th, and 5th -- would have black populations of 70 percent or more under Schmoke's proposal. Two districts -- the 1st and the 3rd -- would have substantial white majorities. The plan would leave the 6th District with about a 51 percent black population.
The prospect of amending Schmoke's plan -- which city lawyers maintain is legally sound, despite yesterday's testimony -- leaves council members in a difficult position.
To prevent a successful court challenge, many of them now believe that substantial amendments are necessary. And those amendments would be likely to alter the political landscape and inflame many communities even as city elections loom in the fall.
The alternative, however, is passing a plan that may be challenged in federal court and lead to a new council plan drawn by a judge, or plaintiffs who file a voting rights lawsuit.
"You don't have too many ways that you can move," said council member Joseph T. "Jody" Landers 3rd, D-3rd. "What everyone will be weighing is the prospect of not doing anything leading to the court drawing the lines."
Council member John A. Schaefer, D-1st, said he believes the council will have to make significant changes in the mayor's plan "because it's quite obvious his plan can't withstand a court challenge."
But, he said, if the black population in the 4th District is reduced, "it will start a domino effect that touches all districts."
The council has until March 28 to amend the plan, which Schmoke introduced earlier this month. Complicating the council members' task is the fact that they will not receive the census information needed to draw the redistricting plan until mid-March. Schmoke's plan was drawn using population projections developed in his office.
Several civil rights groups have threatened to challengSchmoke's plan in court, charging that it does not do enough to improve black representation on the City Council.
Currently, seven of the 19 council members are black. The city is at least 62 percent black.
When he unveiled his plan, Schmoke said he believed it met the requirements laid down by case law and the City Charter.
That position is backed by a legal opinion from the city solicitor. More than just imposing a strict racial numbers test, the law requires that other factors be observed in redistricting. Those factors include population equality, compactness, established neighborhoods, existing council lines and natural boundaries, City Solicitor Neal M. Janey wrote in the opinion.