Suits claim bias in remap

Challengers also say redistricting plan unfairly links areas

Both parties unhappy

March 11, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says his redistricting map is legally sound, but a growing number of state and federal lawsuits allege his plan discriminates against minorities and illegally divides communities.

The challengers - led by Democrats at odds with the governor - have filed three lawsuits in the Maryland Court of Appeals and one in U.S. District Court.

Others are preparing to file their cases before the March 18 deadline - including the Maryland Republican Party, which is expected to support existing arguments.

The suits charge that the governor diluted minority voting power by failing to create a substantial number of minority districts - even as the state's minority population has soared over the last decade. Some also claim the governor merged communities that are culturally and politically different.

Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration maintains that the redistricting plan reflects Maryland's voting patterns and "fairly and accurately represents the voters."

"We anticipated that there would be a number of lawsuits," Byrnie said. "Not everybody is going to be happy. There was a tremendous effort to keep communities intact."

The redistricting plan as proposed by Glendening went into effect Feb. 22.

Critics say the governor went out of his way to hurt the re-election chances of members of his party, as well as those of Republicans, in ways that violate election law.

"I guess the people who drew the map didn't believe that we could read," said Jimmy A. Bell, a Prince George's County civil rights lawyer representing Democratic state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of Baltimore in his federal court case against the plan.

But the plan has support from other African-American legislative leaders who had threatened lawsuits through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Overall, the members of the city delegation are pleased with the districts," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who led the effort.

Even in the smoothest of redistricting efforts, political leaders expect legal challenges to the plans, which are drawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken. About 35 states have completed their redistricting plans during the last year with at least 25 of them facing lawsuits.

In the 1990 redistricting process, courts around the country threw out several state redistricting plans for violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by discriminating against minority voters, said Tim Storey, redistricting coordinator for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the courts have played a minimal role this time around, making mostly minor changes to plans, Storey said.

Redistricting suits often are filed along partisan lines because, when the plans are drafted, it almost always boils down to politics, he said: "Politics and redistricting are extremely interconnected."

Maryland's redistricting process is perhaps unique, Storey said, noting no other governor has the power to appoint the redistricting committee, introduce the plan to the legislature and have the plan automatically become law if lawmakers don't act to change it. Usually, governors and legislatures draft plans together or an independent commission has the authority.

The governor's authority over redistricting and the strong Democratic presence in the legislature are likely reasons why so many of the Maryland lawsuits involve political officials from the governor's party who have had conflicts with his administration, Storey said.

Take Mitchell's lawsuit, for example.

Political observers say Mitchell's 44th District suffered because the senator opposed the governor on several issues, including supporting a white Republican judge in a Baltimore County election. That judge defeated the African-American incumbent who had been appointed by Glendening.

On Feb. 25, Mitchell filed suit against Glendening over the plan, saying the governor disenfranchised black voters by cutting his district from an 80 percent African-American majority to slightly more than half black. The move made Mitchell's re-election chances difficult.

Mitchell's suit charges the plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His district has been the historic well spring of Maryland's African-American political giants.

Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry's suit, filed Feb. 25 for alleged discrimination against minorities statewide, occurs after he has been publicly at odds with Glendening. Curry was elected county executive after Glendening had held the seat, but Curry believes the governor did not give the county enough state support. With his term ending, Curry could be seeking a state or legislative office this election year, and his suit may be part of setting the stage for that.

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