Race and gerrymanders

July 02, 1993

While the U.S. Supreme Court's latest redistricting decision might cause a flurry among critics of Maryland's new political map, chances are it will not force alteration of the new boundaries for the General Assembly. The high court made it clear that the states' power to redraw election districts, even in the name of racial equity, is not unlimited. But in sending a North Carolina congressional districting plan back for further study, the Supreme Court's strictures did not even come close to the Maryland situation.

Although some Washington suburban legislators are unhappy with the boundaries adopted by Gov. William Donald Schaefer last year, the major attack on his plan before the state Court of Appeals involves Northwest Baltimore and adjacent suburbs. The federal Voting Rights Act requires that the states create as many districts with non-white majorities as possible. To achieve that, the governor's plan crosses the city-county boundary. It also carves up Pikesville and other distinct neighborhoods into different districts.

But the resulting map is nothing like the attenuated snake -- it does not even qualify as the prototypical salamander-like gerrymander -- that North Carolina designed for a new congressional district. That district is so narrow and contorted that in places it's no wider than an interstate highway. The Supreme Court did not declare that a weird district like that would be inherently unconstitutional -- though we suspect it would if that question were put squarely before it. The court did set up some severe tests a state would have to apply in order to justify a contorted district when it sent the case back to North Carolina for further argument.

Still, the North Carolina case has some warnings for Marylanders seeking to upset the governor's redistricting plan. Another challenge, pending before a three-judge panel in federal court here, directly raises the issue of racial representation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union are asking that court to apply a more rigorous numerical standard to the creation of legislative districts with non-white majorities.

The narrow majority in the North Carolina case did not address this issue directly. However, it has clearly given notice it will look at redistricting cases involving the strengthening of racial representation more skeptically than the Supreme Court has in the past.

No one here is suggesting anything as bizarre as the North Carolina solution to this problem. But it is a little less clear than it was last year how far the states can go toward assuring minorities their fair share of seats in the legislature.

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