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Md. high court upholds state’s legislative redistricting plan

The state’s highest court has rejected three challenges to the General Assembly’s map redrawing its legislative districts.

The order issued late Wednesday afternoon and signed by Chief Judge Joseph Getty upheld recommendations by the special magistrate. In its order, the court announced it would issue an opinion at a later date.

As a result, the court ordered that the state’s primary election scheduled for July 19 continue as planned. The filing deadline remains this Friday.

The decision brings to a close the legal challenges in state courts to both the Maryland congressional and legislative reapportionment plans.

On Wednesday, the seven-member court spent more than two hours in total hearing oral arguments from plaintiffs and attorneys for the state who defended the maps. Some of those judges raised questions about the state claiming legislative privilege as it refused to provide information including who drew the maps or the data that was relied upon. 

Ann Sheridan, an assistant attorney general representing the state, said the law makes no exception to legislative privilege for redistricting cases.

“I think legislative privilege is absolute,” she said.

Judge Steven Gould said the court may have trouble understanding the considerations used to draw the maps because the state didn’t provide answers. “You’re saying we’re not entitled to know what those considerations are because they’re shielded,” he said.

“The problem I’m having — did the plaintiffs have to prove it’s not compact for you to explain to the public what you did here?” Gould said.

Gould later raised questions about the lack of information provided on who actually drew the challenged maps.

“We’re not entitled to know who drew the map?” he asked.

“I think how the legislature conducted its business is protected,” Sheridan said.

“We’re not talking about how it conducted its business, we’re talking about who drew the map,” Gould said.

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.

Additionally, one of those challenges asserts that the legislature, in drawing the maps, use single- and multi-member districts to dilute Republican voters.

A third complaint filed by 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.

Sheridan repeatedly told the court that the legislature acted properly in how it drew the districts and did not violate the Maryland Constitution.

Multiple judges focused questions on the 27th District, which includes Calvert, Prince George’s and Charles counties. Opponents say it violates requirements that districts observe natural boundaries because the district jumps the Patuxent River. Crossing from one side of the district requires a 45-minute drive and use of a bridge that is outside its boundaries.

Sheridan said the district map “represents a fair balance of constitutional requirements.”

Retired Judge Alan Wilner, a former Court of Appeals judge, sat as special magistrate on the case. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record file)

“Maybe the court can do it a different way, but that’s not for the court to do that balance,” Sheridan said. “It’s for the political branches to do that balance. The population in the south required some balancing of competing factors.”

Retired Judge Alan Wilner, a former Court of Appeals judge, sat as special magistrate on the case.

Wilner issued a nearly 250-page report in which he recommended denying all those challenges as well as one filed by an Anne Arundel County man. That challenge was not part of Wednesday’s oral arguments.

“We appointed a special magistrate, but we certainly can overrule the special magistrate’s findings,” Getty said.

Ultimately, the court did not overrule Wilner.