Appeals judges criticize state on redistricting

Tough questioning of plan raises hopes of plaintiffs

April 12, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative redistricting plan came under sharp scrutiny yesterday by some of Maryland's top judges, who criticized state officials for drawing lines that divide communities in a way that could be unconstitutional.

Officials faced the tough questioning during a hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals on nearly a dozen lawsuits challenging the redistricting plan. The tone of questions by some judges on the state's highest court raised optimism among the plaintiffs that Glendening's plan might be revised or tossed out.

Late in the day, within hours of the hearing's conclusion, the court ordered the state to produce evidence that the new districts are contiguous and compact, and drawn considering natural and political subdivision boundaries, as state law requires.

In the order, the seven-judge panel referred the case to a special master who was charged with collecting further evidence and making a report to the court. The judges said the burden of proof rests with the state to show that the plan is constitutional.

Judge John C. Eldridge said during the hearing that the state appears to have ignored past court opinions, which warned against creating too many multi-jurisdictional districts that cross county lines and large bodies of water. He said the courts have supported combining some communities but that "I don't think the court ... meant anything like this."

"It looks more on its face like it was chopped up," Eldridge said. "The question is the legality of the plan."

Speaking for the state, Assistant Attorney General Maureen M. Dove said the multi-jurisdictional districts were needed in part to maintain and increase the number of districts where blacks are in the majority. She said the redistricting plan kept most of the state's communities intact.

"What we really need to do is look at the map as a whole," Dove said. "Eighty percent of the Maryland voters stayed in the districts they were in."

After the hearing, Secretary of State John T. Willis, who helped draft Glendening's redistricting plan, said the multi-jurisdictional districts have been routine in Maryland redistricting practices for more than 30 years.

"There's nothing in here that gives me any concern because this is a fact-driven process," he said. "The facts the court is looking for the state can supply."

The rigorous questioning of the state gave opponents of the redistricting plan a sense that they might be able to force officials to redraw at least some of the lines.

"They were so confident they were going to blow by this court," said state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., one of the plaintiffs. The Baltimore County Democrat, whose district was eliminated in the redistricting, said, "The judges' questions gave us some hope."

The redistricting plan went into effect Feb. 22. Lawyers representing plaintiffs in 10 of the suits filed with the Court of Appeals spoke at yesterday's hearing, presenting their opening statements about what their clients see as problems with the redistricting plan.

The concerns mostly focused on concern that the plan divides communities and ties them to other jurisdictions that do not share their cultural or political issues, in particular in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and on the Eastern Shore.

For the district Stone would have to run in, he would have to travel across the Key Bridge into Anne Arundel County to reach some constituents.

In addition to splitting communities, two of the suits allege that the plan disenfranchises black and Latino voters, in particular in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

The court said the burden of proof in regard to issues that would affect minorities would remain with the plaintiffs. The impact of the redistricting plan on minorities also is being challenged in U.S. District Court, which is scheduled to hear cases on the issues in July.

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