Redistricting suit names County Council as defendant

June 28, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The County Council got its wish last week and became a defendant in a suit challenging its redistricting plan.

The suit, brought by Republicans David P. Maier of Elkridge and Louis M. Pope of Laurel, will go to trial Aug. 31.

Maier and Pope contend the redistricting plan approved by a 3-2 vote of the council last December is constitutionally invalid because the redistricting was done by resolution rather than through a bill.

Although the council used both methods when district lines were first drawn in 1986, the suit contends that districting can only be accomplished by bill.

Bills can be vetoed and petitioned to referendum. Successfully petitioned bills are put on hold until voters decide the issue in the next general election.

In contrast, resolutions cannot be vetoed or petitioned to referendum. Resolutions take effect immediately, while most bills take effect 60 days after passage.

The court will be asked to determine whether districting is the exclusive province of the County Council or whether the county executive and the electorate can overturn a districting plan.

If the executive and the electorate have a consent function, districting must be done by bill. If the executive and the electorate do not have a consent function, districting must be by resolution.

The county charter is silent on the issue.

When districting lines were first drawn in 1986, the council adopted them in a bill. J. Hugh Nichols, who was then county executive, returned the bill unsigned, saying he did not believe the law intended for the executive to play a role. Unsigned bills become law after 10 days.

After Nichols returned the bill to the council, rumors began circulating that the bill might be petitioned to referendum.

The council was in a quandary. Before that, council members had been elected at large. In the fall, they were to be elected from the newly drawn districts. But if the bill went to referendum, there would be no districts until voters decided to accept the lines the council had drawn.

The simplest way to deal with that dizzying possibility, the council decided, was to pass a resolution the following month that was identical to the bill. That way, districts became a reality immediately and could not be challenged.

In 1991, the council again sought to adopt district lines with a bill first. It did so with a 3-2 vote that followed party lines. But unlike his predecessor, County Executive Charles I. Ecker felt the executive did have a role -- he had sent the council a districting plan of his own that was later embraced by Republicans -- and he vetoed the bill.

Unable to muster the four votes needed to override a veto, the three-member Democratic majority adopted the districting plan in a resolution. The vote was again 3-2 along party lines.

When the election board accepted the new lines, Maier and Pope cried foul and filed suit against the county and the election board. After Ecker said he would not defend the suit, the council asked to join the election board as a defendant. Last week, Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. granted that request.

The council has hired former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti and his associate, Roger Titus, to defend the suit.

Maier and Pope are represented by former County Solicitor Thomas E. Lloyd.

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