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Special magistrate urges Md. high court to reject legislative redistricting challenges

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan Wilner is serving as a special magistrate reviewing the challenges to Maryland’s legislative redistricting plan. (The Daily Record/File photo)

ANNAPOLIS — A special magistrate is recommending that the state’s highest court deny four challenges to a new state legislative map drawn by the Maryland General Assembly.

Special Magistrate Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals Judge, recommended the action in a 30-page report that contained hundreds of pages of exhibits. Wilner issued his report on Monday afternoon hours after the governor, lawmakers and plaintiffs in a congressional case reached an out-of-court settlement.

Two separate groups of Republican lawmakers filed interlocking challenges to the legislative redistricting plan in February. Those challenges contend that a dozen or so districts violate state constitutional requirements that they be compact, contiguous and mindful of crossing jurisdictional lines and natural boundaries.

The plaintiffs challenged a handful of districts in Prince George’s County. The majority Democratic districts all failed the compactness requirement, the attorneys said. District 24 was described as “a seahorse.”

“The evidentiary hearing focused almost entirely on one aspect of redistricting – that the districts be ‘compact,’ ” Wilner wrote. “It is clearly an important element and, in some instances, may be dispositive because of its nexus to gerrymandering. But it is not the only element, and historically has been regarded as being subject to other considerations – predominantly equality of population, the Federal Voting Rights Act and other supervening Federal requirements, contiguity, and, although on its own not a Constitutional consideration, trying to keep people in their home districts where they are closer to the local needs and politics.”

Wilner, in recommending a denial, wrote that “a comparison of the current plan with the one it replaces shows that an attempt was made to keep voters in their current districts, with which they are familiar, and to avoid crossing political or natural boundary lines except when required to achieve or maintain population equality.”   

Additionally, the challenges contend the maps are gerrymandered with the intent to dilute Republican voters.

But Wilner also urged the Court of Appeals to reject that argument.

“Many States have done away with or curtailed mixing single-Delegate and multi-Delegate districts,” Wilner wrote.  “It has been a fixture in Maryland, however, and can serve a useful purpose of giving minority groups a better opportunity to elect one of their own.  To abolish them would be to declare part of the Maryland Constitution unconstitutional.  That has been done before, and that is what it would take to abolish multi-member districts, as requested by petitioners.”

But Wilner acknowledged the issue of multi- versus single-member districts is a question that needs a resolution.

“The problem is one of time,” Wilner wrote. “To strike down a provision of the Maryland Constitution that has been an integral part of our redistricting law for 50 years, with a general election on our doorstep and a legislative session about to end, can create as much mischief as it resolves.  The entire legislative redistricting plan would need to be reviewed and much of it rewritten.  There are 18 Senate districts with split Delegate districts, in 12 of which are a multi-member district, in nearly every area of the State.”

Wilner recommended “leaving that issue for the next cycle, during which the legislature and perhaps the people can survey the country and make an informed decision of whether the current Constitutional provision should be amended or repealed.”   

Wilner also recommended that the court deny two other appeals filed by individuals.

David Whitney, an Anne Arundel County resident, initially filed an appeal contending that the district which encompasses the Broadneck Peninsula area was unconstitutional because it crossed the Chesapeake Bay. But Whitney mistakenly based his appeal on a congressional district. An amended appeal was filed after the court deadline. Wilner recommended that the court deny it on that basis. 

“The entire thrust of his first petition has been abandoned, and his second petition is late, beyond the deadline set by this Court,” Wilner wrote.

Seth E. Wilson, a registered voter in Washington County and head of that county’s Republican Central Committee, challenged the map as it related to House districts drawn in his county.

‘The underlying thrust of Mr. Wilson’s complaint is his aversion to multi-member House Districts, which he believes violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment,” Wilner wrote. 

“There is no legal impediment to including multi-member districts, even when the district or part of it includes residents of another county, at least when that becomes necessary to assure population equality,” the special magistrate wrote.

The recommendation now heads to the full Court of Appeals for a final decision.