ANNAPOLIS -- Baltimore legislators hoping to retain as much clout as possible in the General Assembly once legislative redistricting is over got a bit of good news yesterday from Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
In a legal opinion requested by state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., Mr. Curran concluded there could be justification for making the populations of legislative districts in Baltimore more than 10 percent smaller than the "ideal" legislative district of 101,733 people elsewhere in the state.
Legislators and the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee have been operating under the belief that a 10 percent deviation was the maximum legally permissible. But Mr. Curran said a population deviation larger than 10 percent could be justified if it is the state's policy to draw districts that are intended to maintain the integrity of the city's boundaries.
If that is done, the city could retain eight of its current nine four-member legislative districts. Because of a drop in population from 786,775 in the 1980 Census to 736,014 in the 1990 Census, the city faces the prospect of losing as many as two of its nine districts.
City legislators, such as Senator Pica, have been considering redistricting plans that would permit part of one or possibly two city districts to spill over into neighboring Baltimore County, but county residents have opposed such plans.
Mr. Curran, citing a 1964 federal court decision, said, "The court recognized that deviation from population equality may be necessary to maintain the integrity of various political subdivisions." His opinion also cited a 1982 state Court of Appeals' decision that said "maintenance of the city's boundaries represents a continuation of a long practice of preserving the city's integrity as a discrete and insular jurisdiction."
"Recognition [by the Court of Appeals] of Baltimore City's uniqueness for redistricting purposes . . . is suggestive of a justification sufficient to support some population variances in excess of 10 percent, which would necessarily result from the retention of eight senatorial districts within the city," the opinion states.
Precisely how far beyond the 10 percent limit mapmakers may go and withstand a court challenge is unclear, Mr. Curran said. He noted one federal case that concluded that a 16.4 percent maximum deviation "may well approach tolerable limits."
"It is a favorable opinion," said Mr. Pica, chairman of the city's Senate delegation as well as a Senate panel on redistricting. "We would prefer not to infringe on Baltimore County. But if there is any movement into the county, I hope it is the least amount of infringement."