Victory for Regionalism

February 08, 1993

The artificial political barrier separating Baltimore City and Baltimore County just got considerably weaker. Retired Judge Marvin H. Smith's report to the Court of Appeals on legislative redistricting deals this barrier a serious blow.

Judge Smith's recommendation, as special master for the court, is the first step along the path of legal review, but it is a very important one. His 34-page opinion rejecting challenges to the new legislative boundaries approved by the governor and General Assembly is subject to further argument before the court. But Judge Smith is a highly respected former member of that court. His arguments will carry tremendous weight.

After the Court of Appeals renders a final decision, a three-judge federal court panel will decide other issues. The federal case is more intricate legally, but the state case deals with the most sensitive political issue -- crossing the city-county boundary to form shared legislative districts. Since the challenge to those districts is based on the state constitution, the federal court is almost certain to follow suit.

A number of objections were raised to the shared districts: They disregard a constitutional mandate to give "due regard" to the boundaries of political subdivisions, divide established communities like Pikesville, dilute the voting strength of county residents in city-dominated districts and deprive them of equal representation at Annapolis.

To these arguments Judge Smith replied, "As I see it, the issue before the court is not whether there might have been bad faith in some regard in the preparation of the maps, or whether in some regard the [governor's advisory] committee -- or even the governor -- may have deviated in some way from what the constitution contemplates in the construction of a plan, but whether the districts as set up under the governor's plan are constitutionally sound." Crossing political boundaries, he concluded, is justified by the federal Voting Rights Act mandate to create as many districts as possible in which minority voters dominate.

Although the arguments were couched in legal terms, the underlying issue before the Court of Appeals is continued parochialism in the metropolitan area. The courts have long recognized that redistricting is a political activity, and that politics are best left to the governor and legislature. Sensible politics as well as the needs of effective government call for increased regional cooperation. The new districts would enhance that.

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