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Maryland judge rejects state’s congressional redistricting plan, orders new maps drawn

A plan to redraw the state’s eight congressional districts has been voided by a Maryland judge who said the maps unfairly favored Democrats.

Judge Lynne Battaglia, in an order issued Friday, struck down the maps drawn and passed by the Democratic majority legislature. Battaglia ordered the redistricting plan to be returned to the General Assembly and for a new plan to be sent to her by March 30 for a hearing on April 1.

“Not only did the judge rule in favor of our plaintiffs, but she confirmed that there is Maryland state law that applies to partisan gerrymandering, something the attorney general’s office vigorously argued against,” said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Fair Maps Maryland, an anti-gerrymandering organization closely aligned with Gov. Larry Hogan. “This would be massive news in its own right but combined with a favorable ruling, it’s a political earthquake.”

Maryland becomes the latest state to see congressional maps blocked because of partisan gerrymandering. Judges in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania blocked maps in those states because they unfairly favored Republicans.

Raquel Coombs, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said the ruling is being reviewed and no decision has been made on an appeal.

Battaglia, a retired Court of Appeals judge sitting in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, wrote in her opinion that testimony by expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in a trial earlier this week showed that “Republican voters and candidates are substantially adversely impacted” by the new districts.

“In many respects, all of the testimony in this case supports the notions that the voice of Republican voters was diluted and their right to vote and be heard with the efficacy of a Democratic voter was diminished,” Battaglia, who served on the state’s highest court for 15 years, wrote. “No compelling reason for the dilution and diminution was ever adduced by the state.”

Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a roughly 2-1 margin. Democrats, however, hold seven of the eight congressional seats.

In the plan struck down by Battaglia, the panel appointed by the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, drew a map that appears to retain the seven seats held by Democrats. The seat held by Republican Rep. Andy Harris was made more competitive for Democrats.

Some Republicans said they expected the order would be appealed though no formal announcement on that has been made public.

The timeline in Battaglia’s order raises a number of substantial questions that could be potential hurdles.

The House adjourned Friday morning before the ruling and doesn’t expect to return until Monday at 3 p.m. A break over the weekend would reduce the five-day period to develop a map and potentially move a resolution through both the House and Senate before the deadline.

Additionally, the process and responsibility for drawing the maps is unclear. House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson last year appointed the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission to draw the congressional and legislative maps. It is not clear if that panel would handle a revision and if the panel would have to be reappointed to do the work.

Once a map is drawn, the House and Senate will likely have to approve a resolution formalizing the new maps.

All of this is a potentially Herculean effort in three to five days.

Hogan, a two-term governor, is the first Republican in state history to hold office in a redistricting year. Since being sworn-in in 2015, he has proposed legislation creating an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative districts based on the decennial census. In each year, the General Assembly has rejected that legislation.

Last year, Hogan created the panel made up of equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The commission was tasked with drawing both a congressional and state legislative map.

Under Maryland law, the governor is required to deliver a congressional map to the legislature, which does not have to adopt his plan. And while the governor has no legal requirement to propose a legislative map, Hogan also introduced one. The legislature rejected both those plans in favor of maps drawn by its own commission.

Hogan vetoed the congressional maps following a December special session and denounced it as illegal gerrymandering that “makes a mockery of our democracy.” The General Assembly swiftly overrode that veto.

After the judge’s ruling, the governor called on lawmakers to approve the map submitted by the commission he supported.

“I call on the General Assembly to immediately pass the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission maps that were written with accountability and transparency,” Hogan said in a statement. “This is an historic milestone in our fight to clean up the political process in our state, and ensure that the voices of the people we are elected to serve are finally heard.”