Redistricting politics and the courts

May 26, 1992

Three serious challenges to the Schaefer administration's legislative redistricting plan have hit the courts, and each raises a fundamental question about metropolitanism in the Baltimore area. Although some legislators have represented parts or all of more than one county for many years, never has a district spread across the Baltimore City-Baltimore County line.

Under the Schaefer plan, which is final unless successfully challenged in court, five Senate districts would be shared by city and county voters. Del. Theodore Levin, whose Pikesville base would be split, is challenging the seat-sharing in the Court of Appeals. The state Republican Party has mounted a similar challenge in federal court. In the same court, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union support the crossing of the city-county line.

Critics of the Schaefer administration plan argue crossing the city line was contrived to give Baltimore eight seats in the state Senate instead of the seven they argue it is entitled to by population. Yet this move breaks down an artificial barrier that prevents many legislators from viewing the metropolitan area as a whole. It makes possible a majority-black city-county district in the governor's plan, too.

The NAACP/ACLU suit also challenges the state constitutional requirement that delegates' districts must be "nested" within a single senate district. Breaching that constraint would undermine some long-standing political organizations.

Only in Mr. Levin's suit is metropolitanism a principal factor. The NAACP suit contends that the new boundaries do not create as many predominantly minority districts as are required by the federal Voting Rights Act. The Republican suit argues that the lines were drawn to minimize GOP voting strength. It also raises the issue whether the districts should have numerically equal populations, as does Mr. Levin. The NAACP suit seeks only the variation in size which some courts in other states have permitted.

In each of the cases a partisan political advantage is the real goal. But in deciding the validity of the arguments the state's highest court and a three-judge federal panel will have a substantial impact on the metropolitan area's political structure for the decade ahead.

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