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High court will hear PG County Council’s bid to restore redistricting plan

Prince George’s County Council’s high court bid to restore its redistricting plan amid allegations of gerrymandering will likely depend on whether the council validly approved its controversial redrawing by simple resolution rather than by enacting a law.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has agreed to hear arguments March 4 on the council’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that the body must pass a law in order for its map to go into effect rather than one submitted by Prince George’s independent redistricting commission established under the county’s 1970 charter.

In its successful request for high court review, the council stated that Prince George’s County Circuit Judge William A. Snoddy failed to give due consideration to a voter-approved 2012 amendment to the county charter that the council says enables it to adopt a redistricting map by resolution.

“This Court (of Appeals) settled long ago the distinction between a resolution and a bill – but circuit court chartered its own distinction and ignored the people of Prince George’s County who saw fit in 2012  to require county lawmakers to adopt decennial redistricting plans by resolution,” wrote the council’s attorney, Rajesh A. Kumar.

The four county residents challenging the council’s map defended Snoddy’s decision, telling the Court of Appeals that the 2012 amendment did not alter the county charter but made clear that the council must pass a law in order for its map to supersede the commission’s.

“The council claims that its own redistricting plan could be passed by simple resolution, exempt from all legislative safeguards, including the executive veto,” wrote the residents’ attorneys, Timothy F. Maloney and Matthew G. Sawyer.

But “redistricting is a fundamental exercise of legislative power,” they added. “This court has held that a council cannot legislate by resolution to avoid executive veto, a critical component of the legislative process.”

On Sept. 1, the County Redistricting Commission submitted its new map to the council, as well as a 52-page report, after having held 13 public sessions and reviewing its submission in light of Maryland law, the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, according to court papers.

The council introduced its own plan in October and on Nov. 16 adopted it by resolution on a 6-3 vote, which drew fire from county residents who said that map clearly favored incumbents and divided the historically Black community of Vansville into two councilmanic districts.

“This case arrives in response to political gamesmanship in an effort to improperly manipulate the redistricting process for Prince George’s County, Maryland,” the four residents stated in their circuit court complaint.

“The implementation of this new plan will irreparably harm the voters and potential county council candidates in the county,” they added. “Such efforts are thinly veiled attempts to gerrymander districts to prevent certain candidates from voting for the candidates of their choosing.”

The council has denied the allegations of impropriety and said its adoption of its redistricting plan by resolution was in keeping with the 2012 charter amendment.

The council’s and residents’ opposing interpretations of the 2012 amendment leaves the Court of Appeals with the task of parsing two back-to-back sentences — the first from the original charter and the second from the 2012 amendment:

“If the council passes no other law changing the (independent commission’s) proposal, then the plan, as submitted, shall become law, as of the last day of November. Such law shall be adopted by resolution of the county council upon notice and public hearing.”

In its request for high court review, the council stated its redrawn map is valid because the “other law” that changed the commission’s proposal to the council’s was “adopted by resolution” per the 2012 amendment.

“When the voters ratified (the amendment), it must be assumed that the people of Prince George’s County meant what they said – i.e. – if county lawmakers pass another law to change the commission’s plan, it shall do so by resolution,” wrote Kumar, the council’s attorney.

But the residents countered that the “such law (which) shall be adopted by resolution” refers to adoption of the commission’s plan based on grammatical rules.

“The relative pronoun here (‘such’) comes ‘as a rule’ after its antecedent here (‘the plan, as submitted, shall become law’),” Maloney and Sawyer wrote. “Under no rules of statutory construction or basic grammar could the antecedent to the pronoun ‘such’ here be the language ‘if the council passes no other law changing the proposal.’”

Maloney is with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt. Sawyer is with the Law Offices of Matthew G. Sawyer LLC in Rockville.

The four Prince George’s County residents challenging the council’s map are Robert E. Thurston, Stephanie Stullich, John D. Perkins and Stanley Holmes.

The case is docketed at the Court of Appeals as Prince George’s County v. Robert E. Thurston et al., No. 63 September Term 2021.