Judges should tread lightly on political maps

April 11, 2002

ALMOST BY DEFINITION, state governments must balance competing interests when they draw and redraw legislative district maps.

There are geographic concerns, and there are political considerations that keep members of both parties up late at night.

But the nation's courts have minimized those issues in favor of efforts to secure minority voting rights or to maintain newly won minority representation.

Ultimately, it's about fairness and redress of injustice. Locked out of the political process for generations, minority voters are just now breaking through barriers that have kept them from adequate representation. And without continued vigilance on the part of those who determine the shape and location of legislative jurisdictions, the meager progress that has been made will reverse itself.

Arguments along that critically important line of thought will be made in Annapolis today, as the Maryland attorney general tells the Court of Appeals that the goal of preserving minority rights compelled the governor's redistricting commission to fashion some odd district shapes and border-crossing alignments in the new legislative map.

It's an argument the court ought to accept.

Inherently political, the map-drawing process always leads to whispers of intrigue and paranoid theorizing: which vile Republican or turncoat Democrat got his or her dose of payback as the map exploded his district or paired him with another incumbent. Some of these stories are, no doubt, true. But that's beside the point.

The state will argue today that, given population losses in Baltimore and Baltimore County, those two jurisdictions bore the brunt of otherwise anomalous new district borders. Districts once fully contained in the city now cross into the county to pick up balancing population. The requirement is to have roughly the same number of people in each of the 47 senatorial districts.

In 1990, several city districts moved for the first time across Baltimore County lines in what mapmakers acknowledged was an effort to shore up waning political power in the city. Population losses equal fewer delegates and senators -- and less bargaining power in the halls of the General Assembly.

The marriage of city and county has produced no noticeable disadvantage for either jurisdiction or for the state. The pattern of "crossings" continued in the map produced this year partly as a way of balancing populations but primarily to maintain minority representation in Annapolis.

An alternative map proposed by one of those whose challenge will be heard today could cost Baltimore two senators and six delegates. The state's plan as proposed means the city would still lose one senator (to reflect population loss) but could re-elect all five minority senators and delegates. In Prince George's County, the challenger's alternative would pit two incumbent black senators against one another. The state's plan, conversely, creates a new Senate seat and four new delegates, each elected from majority-black districts. In Howard County, a newly drawn senatorial district also favors a black candidate.

These results seem to be rooted in law, reasonable and in Maryland's long-term best interest.

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