A push to redraw the state’s 6th Congressional District by the end of the 2019 session could hinge on the Supreme Court.
House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have been mostly silent on a federal court order to redraw the Western Maryland district. Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan is pushing forward with a commission tasked with drawing a plan he said would comply with the order, which has been temporarily stayed and is now scheduled for review by the Supreme Court.
“There’s just a lot of questions that have to be answered and a lot of dominoes that will fall into place when the Supreme Court decides to act or decides not to act,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and incoming chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Meanwhile advocates for redistricting reform such as Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause Maryland said lawmakers have a second redistricting concern to address — an overall effort to reform the process. Common Cause favors an effort to redraw legislative and congressional districts through an independent commission, an idea also supported by Hogan.
“There’s probably not going to be a sense of urgency (in the legislature) until the court comes down with a decision on the 6th District for 2020,” said Effingham.
But he said lawmakers should take up passing reform for the coming decennial redistricting effort.
“There’s nothing from the Supreme Court that would say an independent commission is unconstitutional,” Effingham said. “I don’t think that there’s any reason to wait.”
Hogan is moving ahead on finding a proposal to address a federal court order requiring the state to redraw the 6th District following a challenge by Republican voters who claimed the 2010 boundaries violated their First Amendment rights. The order, which is currently stayed, requires the state to redraw the district by July 1, barring any decision by the United States Supreme Court.
“We have an emergency situation now with the 6th Congressional District where the court determined the Democrats under Governor O’Malley violated the constitutional rights of Marylanders, and they ordered us to draw a new district,” said Hogan.”
The three-judge panel in November ordered the state to redraw the 6th District, which includes western Maryland and parts of Montgomery County, without significantly altering the seven other congressional districts. The court ordered a map to be produced by March 7. The court raised concerns about the 2011 map that targeted Republicans and other voters who would vote Republican.
The new district removed 66,000 Republican voters while adding 24,000 registered Democrats. The change resulted in the district previously held by a Republican to flip to Democrat and gave that party a 7-1 split in the state’s eight congressional districts.
Prior to the 2002 redistricting, the parties evenly split the eight districts in a state where Democrats hold a roughly 2 to 1 advantage in registered voters.
The nation’s highest court Friday afternoon announced it will take an appeal on Linda H. Lamone et. al. v. O. John Benisek et al., No. 18-726 as well as a case from North Carolina. Arguments are scheduled for March and a ruling is expected in the summer, after the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session ends.
The legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, has historically been hesitant to pre-empt court decisions. Depending on how the high court rules later this year, the legislature might have to return in a special session.
Pinsky said he believe the legislature will delay any action on redrawing districts for the 2020 elections until the Supreme Court either strikes down the lower court ruling, sets uniform rules for all states to follow or clarifying open questions in the lower court order.
Lawmakers and Hogan will also push for changes in how the state draws congressional districts beyond the court order. The incoming two-term Republican governor has vowed to bring back his proposal for an independent redistricting commission. That legislature repeatedly rejected the bill the last three years.
“I still hope we can get that legislation passed,” said Hogan. “I think there’s a possibility of that happening now that I’m governor and I’ll be the one changing the lines. Maybe now the legislature will come to their senses. I think they were hoping they’d have a Democratic governor to draw the lines.”
The leaders of the House and Senate have been quiet recently on redistricting reform, In November, however, the long-time Maryland Senate president told reporters the legislature would have a role in any such effort.
Hogan convincingly won re-election but in doing so failed to pick up five seats in the Senate needed to block a veto override. His party lost eight seats in the House.
“It means that the governor and the legislature will work together to come up with a plan that everyone can agree on,” Miller said in November. “We’ll work hard to come up with a plan. It might be the governor’s plan. It might be the legislature’s, but we’re going to have a plan in place and hopefully the public will be pleased.”
But since the decennial reappportionment doesn’t happen until 2021, such an effort doesn’t have to happen this year.
Some lawmakers are already looking to continue the discussion over what reform might look like.
Pinsky and Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, are two legislators expected to bring back bills.
For the last four years Reznik has sponsored legislation that would take redistricting out of the hands of the executive branch and hand it off to staff with the Department of Legislative Services and professionals with backgrounds in elections law and demographics. The bill, if passed, would only take effect if an identical bill were passed by Virginia.
“The governor’s approach is neither clear nor effective nor, frankly, enforceable,” said Reznik.
Pinsky, the chair of the Senate committee that would hold hearings on changes to election and redistricting law, said he plans to bring back a reform bill that would be triggered by an agreement by a Republican-controlled state with seven to nine congressional districts.
The governor previously vetoed a compact bill that created an independent commission framework provided that five other states adopted the same plan. The Senate ultimately allowed that veto to stand.
Pinsky called that bill “a bit far-fetched” because of the number of states but said his bill “is not real complicated.”
“We match up with one state,” said Pinsky. “I don’t care who it is.”
Both lawmakers acknowledge that this year may not bring passage of a reform effort because other priorities, including expanding education funding, are garnering so much attention.
“I don’t feel the Democrats feel there’s an urgency right now,” said Reznik, who added he would also be willing to wait. “I’m perfectly happy to wait for the Supreme Court decision and see how that shakes out.”