Of legislative snakes and lizards

December 07, 1993

When does bizarre become unconstitutional? The U.S. Supreme Court has raised that question, and a special federal court panel here may need to answer it. It has ordered further arguments over a proposed legislative district for the lower Eastern Shore outlined by the NAACP in a voting rights suit. By carving out a district stretching from Cambridge to Salisbury through Princess Anne to Pocomoke City, the NAACP argues, Maryland could add a black member to the House of Delegates.

The federal Voting Rights Act says that the states should exert themselves to create congressional or legislative districts in which minorities can become majorities. Maryland has complied by creating a new congressional district in the Washington suburbs in which black voters predominate, as well as some legislative districts in the Baltimore metropolitan area which cross the city-county line for the same purpose. These new districts have all been duly approved by the appropriate appellate courts.

But the NAACP is pressing another case in federal court here, arguing that the state did not get as close to mathematical equity for minorities as it could have when it redrew legislative boundaries for next year's elections. After hearing arguments last month, a three-judge panel has asked for more argument -- not on the suburban districts that have previously drawn everyone's attention, but on a proposal for the lower Shore.

In a North Carolina case last spring, the Supreme Court turned back a proposed congressional district that was so attenuated the majority called it bizarre. It stretched for 160 miles, picking up black voters wherever it could; for some of its length it was barely wider than an interstate highway. That kind of solution is not acceptable unless the state has an overriding need to do it, the court said. But it didn't define "overriding."

The proposed Maryland district, which would elect a single member of the House of Delegates, is not as extreme as North Carolina's. That district was described by one judge as a "snake" that stretched 160 miles. The proposed Shore district -- which could be modified, rather than accepted or rejected as drawn -- is roughly 55 miles long and shaped more like a lizard than a snake. But so was the original gerrymander.

The Shore district would stretch through three counties. Is this contorted enough to require a compelling need to do it? The judicial herpetologists will soon let us know.

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