ANNAPOLIS -- In a move that may be unprecedented in the nation, a panel of three federal judges hopes to sit jointly with the seven judges of Maryland's highest court to decide the constitutionality of Maryland's new legislative redistricting plan.
The unusual level of cooperation, described in a June 15 opinion issued by the three federal judges, could result in a single court master being jointly appointed to hear legal challenges to the redistricting plan adopted by the General Assembly earlier this year.
The master would then report his findings to the respective state and federal courts, which then would render independent decisions.
The redistricting plan sets the district lines that will be used for the election of 47 senators and 141 delegates in 1994 and 1998.
Six legal challenges to the plan have already been filed, two in federal court and four in state court.
They generally allege that the plan fails to provide for sufficient black representation, favors Democrats over Republicans and unfairly inflates Baltimore's influence by allowing five city districts to overlap into portions of neighboring Baltimore County.
The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, has set a July 1 filing deadline for anyone who wants to challenge the redistricting plan, and the state has until Aug. 31 to respond.
Attorneys for the state, who are defending the governor's plan, had asked the federal court to abstain from deciding the federal issues raised in cases filed by Maryland Republicans and by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People until the state courts had acted.
The federal panel, however, denied that request, saying it has an "unflagging obligation" to consider federal and constitutional claims.
But to speed up the process and avoid having one court make a decision that might subsequently be voided by the other, the federal judges proposed working together with their state counterparts.
"We seek to act in tandem with the Maryland Court of Appeals to the end that federal and state review of the legislative redistricting plan proceed simultaneously rather than sequentially," said the opinion signed by U.S. Circuit Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. and U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz.
U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin filed a separate opinion that concurred with the majority, although he said that the
federal court should stay out of the matter until the state court had rendered its decision.
The opinion said that there have already been informal talks between the federal and state judges.
Chief Judge Robert Murphy of the Court of Appeals said that the idea was "very unique, and I think probably is a first." Federal and state courts in some other states, such as Minnesota, are almost at war over who has legal jurisdiction over redistricting.
"This is a good way to approach a common problem," he said.
Judge Murnaghan said, "It seems to me that whether you're a state judge or a federal judge does not matter as much as whether you decide a case as effectively and as economically as possible. Judge Murphy is someone we on the federal court have known for a long time. We hope to improve the chances of a reasonable and quick decision by cooperating rather than creating obstacles and difficulties."