Worcester County's commissioners decided yesterday to appeal a federal court ruling striking down the county's at-large voting system on racial grounds.
No black person has ever been elected to the Eastern Shore county's five-member Board of County Commissioners. Civil rights lawyers hoped that record would change with U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young's ruling Jan. 7 that the county's at-large election system violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in diluting the strength of minority voters.
Worcester officials said they will take the issue to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because they believe Judge Young's ruling was contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions on similar voting rights cases.
Local officials argued that if they adopted an election plan with a minority district -- one of several proposals offered by Judge Young -- they would be sanctioning the practice of gerrymandering.
Board President Jeanne Lynch also said that if the Worcester case was not appealed, the county would have to pay civil rights lawyers about $200,000 in fees.
The county has spent nearly $300,000 in legal costs fighting the suit, with most of that money going to Benjamin E. Griffith, a Mississippi lawyer hired last year.
County officials estimated that the appeal would cost taxpayers another $50,000.
"The costs are troublesome, but the principles are greater than the costs," said Mrs. Lynch. "We'll find the money somehow."
Deborah A. Jeon, an American Civil Rights Union lawyer who helped argue the suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, said the reasons given by the commissioners for their unanimous decision to appeal are disingenuous.
"What irks me is that they are cloaking this under the guise of fighting for equality," she said, "when they are utterly ignoring the wishes of the black community."
Blacks make up about 21 percent of Worcester's 35,000 residents. Under the county's election system, minority political strength has been diluted by white voting patterns.
Ms. Jeon said if the Appeals Court agrees to review the Worcester suit and ultimately upholds Judge Young's ruling, it might not be possible for a new system to be in place in time for the fall election.
Similar voting rights suits have been brought against 10 other Eastern Shore counties and towns in the last decade, although Worcester was the only jurisdiction to fight. The others avoided court battles by changing their election systems.
In nine of the jurisdictions, blacks gained political power in subsequent elections.