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Judge defers ruling on Md.’s revised congressional maps

Judge defers ruling on Md.’s revised congressional maps

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“I cannot issue a ruling relative to these new maps because it would be merely advisory and having sat on the Court of Appeals for now 20 years off and on, being a retired judge, I know that advisory opinions are not well-regarded,” says Judge Lynne Battaglia. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge will not rule on the legal sufficiency of new congressional maps hastily drawn by the General Assembly.

Judge Lynne Battaglia is expected to technically deny approval of the maps, but she said during a Friday hearing that her denial is based on an incomplete legislative process. Instead, she will likely amend an order issued last week that accompanied a ruling in which she found maps drawn in December to violate the Maryland Constitution.

“We do not have an enacted map,” said Battaglia, speaking of the bill passed by the legislature two days earlier.

“I cannot issue a ruling relative to these new maps because it would be merely advisory and having sat on the Court of Appeals for now 20 years off and on, being a retired judge, I know that advisory opinions are not well-regarded,” she said.

Instead, Battaglia said, she would effective deny the map to avoid issuing an advisory opinion. The new maps and the findings of fact from Friday’s hearing could become part of an ongoing appeal of her initial ruling, she said.

The unorthodox process adds another layer to an already complicated saga that included the General Assembly drawing eight new congressional districts late last month even as state attorneys were preparing to appeal Battaglia’s earlier ruling.

The legislature passed the maps Wednesday to meet Battaglia’s deadline for a revised congressional reapportionment plan.

The revised maps, however, await action from Gov. Larry Hogan, who could veto them as he did the plan passed in December.

Hogan has until the end of the day Wednesday to make a decision. The legislature would then have to override any veto. Even then, the new plan would be contingent on an unsuccessful appeal of Battaglia’s March 25 ruling.

Battaglia, in her original 94-page decision, ruled a map drawn in December by the Democrats was unconstitutional. In part, her ruling adopted a novel approach for reviewing congressional maps in that she held those districts to a compact and contiguous standard previously believed to only apply to state legislative districts. She also ruled that the maps represented a partisan gerrymander explicitly designed to minimize Republican voters in favor of Democratic voters.

Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a roughly 2-1 margin. The map struck down by Battaglia maintained a 7-1 advantage for Democrats in the eight districts. And the one district represented by Republican Rep. Andy Harris was made competitive.

Battaglia ordered new maps be drawn in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act law and mindful of the other issues she raised.

Andrea Trento, an assistant attorney general, Friday told Battaglia that the maps conform to the federal Voting Rights Act and protect the 4th and 7th minority-majority districts. The new maps also observe major natural boundaries — namely the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, the new districts are more compact, contiguous and contain just nine crossings of jurisdictional boundaries, he said.

“It’s right in the middle of the fairway with regards to compactness,” Trento told Battaglia.

The Democratic Party has held seven of the congressional seats since 2012. Prior to the 2002 reapportionment, the eight seats were evenly split between the parties. That year, Democratic Former Gov. Parris Glendening, who now decries partisan redistricting, whittled that down to a 6-2 margin in favor of his own party.

Under the new map before Battaglia, the 1st Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican in the state delegation, was substantially overhauled. A map approved in January made Harris’ district slightly favorable to Democratic challenges by crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and picking up portions of Anne Arundel County that had more Democratic voters.

Harris’ district in the new map no longer crosses the Bay Bridge but instead connects to the western shore through Cecil and Harford counties into eastern Baltimore County.

The state’s two so-called Voting Rights Districts are almost entirely contained within Baltimore city and Prince George’s County.

Attorneys for two groups of plaintiffs contend that the map remains flawed and does not pass muster. Chief among the complaints is a redrawn 2nd District that dips down into northern Baltimore city to pick up roughly 30,000 residents.

“It’s not necessary to have this little incursion into the city,” said Strider Dickson, an attorney for one of two groups of plaintiffs.

“This looks like gerrymandering,” said Robert Popper, an attorney for a second group of plaintiffs, who argued the only reason to allow the incursion into the city was to pick up Democratic voters who would be more favorable to Democrats candidates. The district is currently represented by Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The plaintiff attorneys also contended that the crossing into Baltimore city created a 10-jurisdictional crossing.

Trento defended the crossing, which Battaglia and others described as the shape of the country of India, as necessary to maintain the 7th District as a Voting Rights Act district.

“The African American population in District 7 is 53%,” said Trento, acknowledging to the judge that he did not have demographic data for the areas of the city in question. “I have firsthand knowledge, I live there, and so I can tell you Roland Park and Homeland and Mt. Washington they don’t look like, demographically, the rest of the city.”

Lumping those voters into the 7th District could flip its minority-majority composition.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick on the state’s election schedule.

The primary election has already been delayed nearly month to July 19. State officials said they expect an additional delay will be necessary.

The latest the state could hold the primary is Aug. 16 in order to comply with federal election laws, including those related to the mailing of overseas ballots.

The state could seek a waiver to federal requirements, but such an approval could come with other costs. Ohio sought and received a waiver but was ordered to cover the costs of express mail of the ballots.

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