ANNAPOLIS — The end of a legal battle over a congressional redistricting plan may only kick Maryland’s gerrymandering fight down the road about 10 years.
Gov. Larry Hogan and others who decried partisan motives in the original maps hailed Judge Lynne Battaglia’s March 25 ruling rejecting those maps as a death blow to gerrymandering. The withdrawal of appeals by the state over Battaglia’s decision, announced Monday, makes that less of a certainty.
Doug Gansler, a former Maryland attorney general, said the settlement Monday gives both sides a victory. Hogan and others who are critical of the redistricting process have a court win and a map that is better than what they started with. The Democratic majority prevent Battaglia’s ruling from becoming precedent. Attorney General Brian Frosh, the former legislator, gets an assist in protecting the interests of his former colleagues.
“There’s not going to be a Court of Appeals decision,” said Gansler. “This means there is no precedent in effect for (redistricting) 10 years from now. No one got everything they wanted. Everyone is a little unhappy. That probably means it was the right solution.”
Hogan’s decision comes after months of political maneuvering and debate over how to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts. A separate legal challenge to the state’s legislative redistricting is now in the hands of the Court of Appeals after Special Magistrate Alan Wilner Monday recommended the high court reject several challenges to that plan.
Monday’s agreement involving the governor, two plaintiff groups who challenged the congressional maps, and the Office of the Attorney General brings some closure to one chapter of the fight against hyper-partisan redistricting. It also kicks the can down the road another decade for another legislature, governor and future plaintiffs.
Battaglia’s ruling surprised Democrats. Both sides, however, appeared to recognize the potential for an adverse ruling from the state’s highest court.
“There was risk for both sides,” said Gansler, noting that the Court of Appeals is now made up of a majority of Hogan appointees “and is seen as more moderate.” But there was no guarantee Battaglia’s ruling would survive a challenge.
Battaglia, sitting as a trial judge, ruled the congressional reapportionment unconstitutional. Her 94-page decision included a novel application of constitutional requirements that had, until now, only applied to state legislative districts.
The judge with a Democratic pedigree wrote that requirements that districts be compact, contiguous and mindful of political and natural boundaries also applied to congressional districts.
Immediately after the ruling, Fair Maps Maryland, a anti-gerrymandering group aligned with Hogan declared the state “at the precipice of ending” gerrymandering.
The Office of the Attorney General appealed Battaglia’s ruling last week at the same time lawmakers submitted a revised plan to the judge.
Since Friday, Hogan and attorneys on both sides engaged in negotiations in an attempt to end the legal wrangling.
“We all came to an agreement that this was something they should not pursue, throwing out the judge’s order,” said Hogan.
The end of this court fight — another on state legislative districts remains — leaves in place a map approved by the legislature last week.
“The days of Maryland being known for some of the worst gerrymandered districts in the country are over,” said Doug Mayer, the spokesman for Fair Maps Maryland. “This has been a long time coming but we finally have congressional districts that don’t look like prehistoric animals and aren’t specifically designed to suppress Marylander’s right to vote. Make no mistake, this outcome is not what the leadership of the Maryland General Assembly wanted – which is why it’s the best outcome for Marylanders.”
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.
“This map is a huge step in the right direction,” said Hogan. “It’s not perfect. There’s still some issues that could be corrected but I think it’s miles away from the really incredibly gerrymandered map that was thrown out.”
Frosh, the state’s top attorney, in a statement, praised the settlement.
“This map, like the one previously passed by the General Assembly, is Constitutional and fair,” Frosh said in a statement.
The withdrawal of the appeals Monday and Hogan’s decision to sign the new map — he had until Wednesday to decide — means the state will abide by effort, which all but guarantees one Republican congressional seat. A second district could be in play.
Hogan, speaking to reporters, acknowledged the short-term nature of the victory.
“This is a huge win for democracy and for improving the process. Now, we’re going to have fair maps and fair elections in this election cycle,” said Hogan.
The governor called on the legislature to pass his bill creating an independent redistricting commission in order to “fix this permanently, not just for the next 10 years but forever so that they couldn’t go back and cheat and break the constitution the next time.”
The legislature has rejected that bill every year since Hogan first introduced it in 2015. Without it, the governor said, Democratic lawmakers would likely “go back to their same old ways of violating the constitution.”
The end of appeals also leaves Maryland in a state of gerrymandering purgatory. Battaglia’s ruling and her approach to congressional redistricting is left to one case and is not a binding precedent on future maps.
Gerrymandering, once declared dead by some, may now be on life support.
“That would be in the courts,” said Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington County and a candidate for Congress in 2022. “I think when this Maryland legislature draws the map, in the spirit of fairness and the spirit of what happened in this cycle, I’m really hoping they follow (the state constitution.”
Parrott, who has at times been a vocal critic of the political motivations of legislative Democrats, said he hoped the Battaglia ruling would be a lesson not soon forgotten.
“We’ll remind them,” said Parrott. “We’ll make sure they know that this was the ruling and we’ll see in 10 years what happens. Hopefully they will stick to this ruling and if not it’s going go to court again and maybe that will be the one that goes to the court of appeals where it does become binding.”
Given the uncertainty surrounding the state’s redistricting plans, Maryland’s highest court shifted the state’s primary election year from June 28 to July 19. Up for grabs this year are the major statewide offices — governor, attorney general and comptroller — all 188 state legislative seats, all eight of Maryland’s U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate office.