Shore redistricting to aid blacks ordered

January 15, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Staff Writer Staff writer Robert Timberg contributed to this article.

A panel of federal judges, citing years of political inequities on the lower Eastern Shore, ordered the state yesterday to redraw legislative boundaries for the benefit of black candidates there.

"We hope to unlock doors that for too long have been closed to the African-American community on the Eastern Shore," the panel wrote, ordering the state to create a House of Delegates district with a black majority.

The judges upheld all other elements of the Maryland redistricting plan passed in 1992.

Lawyers for the NAACP applauded yesterday's ruling, issued one week after a similar federal court decision reinforced minority voting rights in Worcester County. In that case, the court ordered the county to change the way commissioners are elected.

"I'm obviously ecstatic," said Samuel L. Walters, assistant general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had challenged the redistricting plan. "The people there have had no realistic opportunity."

The ruling resolves a two-year battle that was punctuated by accusations of racism and gerrymandering. That battle, which left every legislative boundary in question, had shadowed candidates as they prepared for this year's elections.

In two federal lawsuits -- one filed by the NAACP, the other by Marylanders for Fair Representation -- critics said Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other powerful Democrats had crafted districts with political and racial characteristics that would help their party. The districts limited opportunities for black candidates and inflated Baltimore's influence by extending some districts into neighboring Baltimore County, the suits said.

The judicial panel -- U.S. Circuit Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., and U.S. District Judges J. Frederick Motz and Frederic N. Smalkin -- agreed that political motives influenced how district // lines were drawn.

But wielding such power is only "political reality," the panel wrote in a 96-page ruling. They found no evidence that the plan interfered with the ability of Republicans to participate in the electoral process and dismissed all of the complaints except the voting rights challenges on the lower Eastern Shore.

On that point, two of the judges found that blacks' voting rights had been violated; Judge Smalkin dissented.

Of hundreds of countywide elections for public office in Wicomico, Dorchester, Caroline, Talbot, Somerset and Worcester counties, five have resulted in a black candidate's victory, the panel noted. "Absent some relief, the doors to state government will remain closed both to this new generation of African-American leaders and, more importantly, to the people whom they represent," the judges said.

The panel ordered the state to draft by Feb. 28 a plan creating a lower Eastern Shore delegate district where blacks would make up a majority of the voting age population. No decision has been made on whether to appeal the order to the U.S. Supreme Court, a spokeswoman for Mr. Schaefer said yesterday. "The governor is pleased that 99.5 percent of his redistricting plan was upheld," said his press secretary, Page W. Boinest.

She said the governor's staff was discussing ways to proceed. It is unclear whether General Assembly approval is needed for a new plan, she said.

The lower Eastern Shore currently is represented by legislative Districts 37 and 38. Each has one senator and three delegates, who are elected at large. Critics say the at-large system has made it impossible for minorities to gain office, in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits election practices that dilute the minority vote.

The new delegate district could include parts of both Senate districts. The court ruling commented favorably on an NAACP suggestion that a district be created bordered on the north by U.S. 50 from Cambridge to Salisbury, on the east by U.S. 13 and on the west by the Chesapeake Bay. The district would extend just south of Fruitland.

One of those who could benefit is Dorchester County Commissioner Lemuel D. Chester. In 1986, he became the first black elected to a county commission seat on the Eastern Shore. He is one year into a campaign for a House of Delegates seat.

"The judges' decision will certainly help my potential for getting elected," Mr. Chester said yesterday.

Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-Dorchester, who is retiring this year after 47 years in the Senate, said he had not read the decision but that he felt it was unnecessary. "I do think a good black could win here, no question about it," he said, pointing to Norma Lee Barkley, chief judge of the Orphans Court in Wicomico County.

Redrawing Maryland's legislative, congressional and local councilmanic district lines is required after each federal census to adjust for population shifts.

In 1991, a committee appointed by the governor and made up mostly of Democrats drew the districts, which Mr. Schaefer approved with minor changes. The General Assembly adopted the plan in 1992.

It attracted opponents from the start -- 11 lawsuits in state and federal courts have challenged the boundaries.

Last year, ruling on the state complaints, Maryland's Court of Appeals upheld the plan. The two federal suits, which charged that the plan violated civil rights and voting rights, were consolidated.

Republicans charged that the districts varied greatly in population, benefiting Democrats in many instances and reducing the voting power of residents in the overpopulated districts.

With Baltimore's population declining, Democrats had extended the city's political boundaries into Baltimore County, earning the city one more senator and three more delegates than it deserved, according to the complaint.

The NAACP, meanwhile, argued that the plan diluted minority voting strength statewide, but particularly in the Baltimore metropolitan area and Prince George's County, and on the Eastern Shore.

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