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Editorial: Live by the sword, die by the …

The hills are alive with the sound of pundits drawing feverish conclusions about what it all means.

Is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s historic defeat in the GOP primary Tuesday the death knell for immigration reform? A sign of life for the Tea Party? Or just a tale of what happens when a politician, seduced by the glitter of national power, loses touch with the people he serves, the little people sometimes referred to as voters?

We find it instructive that Cantor’s downfall came about, irony of ironies, after a post-2010 U.S. Census redistricting, a redrawing of the congressional district boundary lines designed to make his Virginia 7th District seat even more safe and cushy, more reliably conservative, impregnable to any Democratic challenge.

That, it appears, was one of Cantor’s big problems. Devout conservatives in the Republican Party had a belly full of him. He was kicked to the curb by the right wing of his own party.

We can only hope, perhaps unrealistically, that politicians in Maryland and elsewhere might take heed. For too long, and all across the country, the party that controls the state legislature has subverted the redistricting process to preserve its dominance. And the safest way to do that was to draw state legislative and congressional district lines in such a way that it diluted the voting blocs of its opponents. Now, it appears, the partisan extremes of a party might actually be a greater danger to the establishment regimes than the opposition.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out redistricting maps that show clear evidence of racial gerrymandering, it has set a very high bar for dissolving politically driven gerrymandering.

But a number of jurists, including former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, argue that political gerrymandering violates constitutional principles because it denies citizens equal protection under the law.

Stevens, you may remember, called Maryland’s 2011 redistricting plan “outrageously unconstitutional.” Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District is often called the “praying mantis” district because of the bizarre and surreal meandering of its boundaries. That does an injustice to the praying mantis.

(Neither Steven’s former colleagues nor Maryland’s highest court agreed with him, upholding the state’s legislative and congressional plans.)

For years, good government groups in Maryland have argued that the redistricting process should be taken out of the hands of state legislators, who consider the recommendations of a panel appointed by the governor. During the current gubernatorial campaign, the leading candidates of both parties have expressed their support for reforming the redistricting process to make it less political and more objective.

We can only hope that the next governor sticks to that campaign pledge and has the political throw-weight to overcome likely opposition in the General Assembly. Citizens deserve districts that reflect neighborhoods, geography and history, that allow for political diversity, that aren’t designed only to extend the careers of incumbents and the power of the majority.

Who knows, districts that force politicians to answer to a chorus of different political viewpoints might even lead to something rarer in politics these days: a willingness to compromise.

One comment


    Six years ago, I published a note in the Duke Law Journal discussing the judiciary’s unwillingness to police partisan gerrymandering for lack of a workable standard. At that time, partisan gerrymandering seemed destined to get worse. Unfortunately, that seems to have been an accurate prediction.