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Maryland Republicans sue over legislative redistricting plan

Del. Kathy Szeliga is one of three House Republicans who has sued over the state’s new legislative redistricting plan. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Five Republican lawmakers and the wife of another have filed legal challenges to the state redistricting plan passed in the General Assembly earlier this year.

In all, four lawsuits against the plan approved by the Democratic-dominated legislature in January were filed Thursday, including one from a Western Maryland man and another who is a resident of Anne Arundel County.

Dels. Mark Fisher, Nic Kipke, and Kathy Szeliga filed one lawsuit Thursday, hours before a 4:30 p.m. deadline.

In that filing, the three Republicans charge that 13 districts in the plan approved in late January violate the Maryland Constitution.

“Through the plan the General Assembly has installed a system whereby voters are cherry-picked to ensure or unlawfully favor the elimination of candidates from one political party,” the three allege in their lawsuit.

The 19-page filing argues that the districts — Districts 7, 9, 12, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 31, 33, 42 and 47 — are invalid “because they are not contiguous or compact and/or do not give due regard to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”

The delegates also say the redistricting maps violate free speech protections because they diminish the voices of certain voters based on voter registration.

“The plan benefits certain preferred speakers (Democratic voters) while targeting certain disfavored speakers (Republican voters) based on the views they express when they vote,” the lawsuit alleges.

The three delegates ask the court to invalidate the legislative plan and order the General Assembly to redraw a map conforming to the state constitution or enact a plan proposed by a panel appointed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Democrats lawmakers and  Karl Aro, who led the effort for the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, have repeatedly said they believe the General Assembly’s plan meets all legal requirements.

A second lawsuit, filed by Republican Dels. Brenda Thiam, Wayne Hartman and Patricia Shoemaker, incorporates all of the charges of the challenge filed by Fisher, Kipke and Szeliga. It also calls on the court to strike down the map because of its mixed use of single- and multi-member House districts.

Thiam is from Hagerstown. Hartman represent a district on the Eastern Shore. Shoemaker is the wife of Republican Del. Haven Shoemaker.

The 47 legislative districts in Maryland each elect one senator and three delegates. In some cases, all three delegates are elected at large. In others, a district might contain a combination of single- and two-member districts.

The Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, favored the use of single-member districts when possible in their redistricting plan. State lawmakers ignored that proposal.

Two other lawsuits, filed Thursday by Seth Wilson and David Whitney, respectively, challenge Thiam’s Washington County district and another encompassing the Broadneck Peninsula in Anne Arundel County.

The state has until Feb. 15 to respond. A virtual scheduling hearing will be held two days later.

The lawsuits were not unexpected. The day after the General Assembly passed its plan, the Court of Appeals issued an order setting deadlines for filing and appointing retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner as special master.

A plan reapportioning the state’s eight congressional districts also faces a legal challenge.

This would not be the first time a Maryland court has reviewed redistricting plans. In 2002, the Court of Appeals threw out a legislative map. The court then appointed a special master to redraw the state’s legislative districts.

A redistricting plan in 1972 was ruled unconstitutional. In 1984 and 1993, the court warned the General Assembly about redistricting plans in those years.

Aro, who chaired the panel that drew a map thrown out by the courts 20 years ago, said the new maps are based on the 2002 plan drawn by the court.

The maps drawn by a legislative panel appointed by Democratic leaders feature multiple districts that cross jurisdictions. A district in the City of Frederick, which is very Democratic, becomes District 3. Wrapped around the city is District 4, a larger, more Republican area. The two together give the appearance of a donut with the city district creating the hole in the center.

The Fisher, Kipke, Szeliga lawsuit appears to underpin the second filing by Thiam, Hartman and Shoemaker.

That lawsuit contends that five districts fully or partially inside Anne Arundel County, including one represented by Kipke, were drawn with the goal of packing Republicans into districts in order to favor Democratic candidates or protect Democratic incumbents.

Two districts in Baltimore County — the 7th and 42nd — are also drawing attention.

Szeliga is one of three Republican delegates currently representing District 7, which is made up of parts of eastern Baltimore County and western Harford County. The new district would remain in those counties but stretch from the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay to the Pennsylvania line.

The court filing alleges the new district is “comprised of a disproportionate number of Republican voters to enable preferred Democratic candidates to prevail elsewhere.”

District 42 would stretch from parts of northern Baltimore County into “a bizarrely shaped portion of Carroll County,” the lawsuit says.

In another example, Legislative District 27 in southern Maryland contains a subdistrict for one House seat that is bifurcated by the Potomac River and is made up of parts of Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties.

“There is simply no reason or need to slice Calvert County into multiple districts or include within Calvert County’s primary legislative district the residents of two other counties,” the lawsuit charges, calling the district “another sad example of partisan gerrymandering.”

The suit concludes that the motivation for such a map is “to isolate Republican voters into a single House district within a Senate district controlled by Democrats.”

Fisher, a Calvert County Republican and party to the lawsuit, said in January that it would take nearly 45 minutes to travel from one side of the district to the other. The trip would require passing through another county to reach a bridge that crosses the body of water.

Fisher, speaking in January, called it “inherently unconstitutional.”

In 2002, the Court of Appeals struck down a legislative redistricting plan that included, among other things, a district that included Southeastern Baltimore County, including Dundalk, and a portion of northern Anne Arundel County. The land masses were divided by the Patapsco River leading to the Port of Baltimore and the mouth of the Inner Harbor.

The court balked at the district because it was only connected by the Francis Scott Key Bridge.