A federal court on Wednesday ordered Maryland to adopt a new congressional map for the 2020 elections, ruling that the state’s current map unconstitutionally diminished the value of Republican voters in the 6th District in the western neck of the state.
The three-judge panel’s ruling in the partisan gerrymandering case, which has gone twice to the Supreme Court on preliminary procedural issues, means the Maryland map once again will be before the high court if state officials appeal, as expected.
The Supreme Court is already considering whether to weigh in on another constitutional challenge to partisan gerrymandering in a case about North Carolina’s congressional map. The court has never ruled that courts can strike down congressional maps if they entrench a partisan advantage for one political party, but it has not shut the door on it either.
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In Wednesday’s ruling, the panel found that state officials in its 2011 map sought to increase the Democratic advantage in the congressional delegation from 6-2 to 7-1, the ruling states.
The map removed roughly 66,000 Republican voters in the 6th District, which covered most of western Maryland, and added 24,000 Democratic voters, prompting experts to change their assessment from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Democratic,” the ruling states.
In doing so, the state violated the First Amendment rights of those Republican voters by substantially diminishing their ability to elect their candidate of choice, as well as their organizational efforts, voting participation, and fundraising.
Voters supported Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, the district’s representative for the preceding 20 years, but Democrat John Delaney defeated him by 21 points in 2012. Delaney retired and Democrat David Trone won the seat Tuesday.
The court ordered a permanent injunction to prevent the state from holding elections under the 2011 map, and said that one proposed remedy would only require modifying the border between the 6th District and the 8th District.
“We are confident that the State, if it acts diligently, will have little trouble devising an alternative map in time for the 2020 election,” U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in the majority opinion. “It will redress a serious, ongoing constitutional injury and enable a large number of Maryland voters to more fully participate in congressional elections.”
In a concurring opinion, U.S. District Judge James Bredar used stronger language but also described how it has “proven impossible” for courts to measure the lawfulness of particular partisan gerrymanders that present “danger.”
“Partisan gerrymandering is noxious, a cancer on our democracy,” Bredar wrote.
In June, the Supreme Court sidestepped a major ruling on partisan gerrymandering in this same Maryland case, along with one about Wisconsin’s statehouse map.
In that argument, Maryland’s attorney general contended that the challenge’s legal theory based on the First Amendment is “novel” and countered that the redistricting made the 6th District more competitive and more consistent with its historic contours.
The justices indicated during oral arguments that they are aware of the role that their decision on partisan gerrymandering could play in the American political landscape, as both political parties gear up for redistricting efforts after the 2020 Census.