A much-watched challenge to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said plaintiffs waited too long to mount a challenge and ask for a preliminary injunction.
The case is one of two involving redistricting on which the court deferred to decide on the arguments. Supporters of redistricting reform say they are now pinning their hopes for a court-established constitutional limits on partisan redistricting on a case from North Carolina.
“This is by no means the end of the road,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “The Supreme Court is still actively looking for the right case to establish a standard for what constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. With Wisconsin and Maryland’s cases still alive, and Common Cause’s North Carolina case awaiting review by the Supreme Court, the fight to establish constitutional limits on partisan gerrymandering is very much alive.”
The ruling coupled with a second involving an appeal of state legislative redistricts sidesteps the issue of partisan gerrymandering and leaves the maps of Maryland’s congressional districts and Wisconsin’s legislative districts intact.
Plaintiffs in Benisek v. Lamone argued that their First Amendment rights had been violated when Maryland officials redrew the state’s congressional maps in 2011 to unseat Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Plaintiffs, who were Republicans, argued that the map constituted retaliation by Democrats for their political views.
“In this case, appellants did not move for a preliminary injunction in District Court until six years, and three elections, after the 2011 map was adopted, and over three years after the plaintiff’s first complaint was filed,” the court wrote in its per curiam order on the Maryland appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled only that U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar did not abuse his discretion in rejecting the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction. The case, which was stayed during the appeal, could still proceed at the trial court level.
The Supreme Court agreed with Bredar’s assessment that granting a preliminary injunction last year would have a “chaotic and disruptive effect upon the electoral process.”
Plaintiffs had sought an injunction against the state to give the court a chance to address the question about the legality of the districts and allow for the creation of new districts. But the Supreme Court, in its order, noted that the August 2017 deadline recognized by the plaintiffs had passed as the District Court reviewed the case.
The challenge, however, was not filed until May 2017 — too late, according to the U.S. District Court ruling that was upheld Monday by the Supreme Court.
The court noted that plaintiffs argued they had “pursued their claims diligently” and were prevented from moving faster because of assertions of legislative privilege by state officials.
“But that does not change the fact that the plaintiffs should have sought a preliminary injunction much earlier,” wrote the court. “In considering the balance of equities among the parties, we think that the plaintiff’s unnecessary, years-long delay in asking for preliminary and injunctive relieve weighed against their request.”
Furthermore, the order stated that the lower court was right in denying an injunction because of “legal uncertainty” posed by questions raised in a Wisconsin case that was also before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court Monday also rejected the Wisconsin case. The court ruled that challengers, Democrats, in that case lacked standing and remanded the case back to a lower court for additional arguments.
Lower courts in that case had ruled that Wisconsin’s state legislative districts were redrawn to discriminate against Democrats.
The two cases were considered to be the most important on the subject of redistricting in years. Neither ruling Monday addresses the merits of either argument.
“After years of inaction in Annapolis, Common Cause Maryland is ready to fight for justice in the courts and overturn Maryland’s egregious partisan gerrymander,” said Damon Effingham, acting executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “Today’s decision proves that the Supreme Court is open to striking political gerrymanders. Along with our allies in the Tame the Gerrymander coalition, we will continue to work to create a fair districting process in Maryland so that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, has a voice in our democracy.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.