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ROCKVILLE – The final say on one of Maryland’s, and perhaps the county’s, biggest political questions could come soon from the U.S. Supreme Court, as it heard oral arguments for a case that could end partisan-gerrymandering around the country.
Gerrymandering, the redrawing of Congressional districts to purposely favor one political party over another, has been a contentious issue in the state since the legislature approved new boundaries in 2011.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases on gerrymandering, which could change the way state legislature draw their Congressional maps while a previous federal court panel ruled that Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District violated the First Amendment right of freedom of association.
While a non-partisan commission is currently working on a process to redraw the state’s map in a more bipartisan way, the case in front of the Supreme Court could have ramifications for the whole country, if the Supreme Court rules partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional.
For Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s congressional has been an issue since he took office in 2014.
“Free and fair elections are the very foundation of our democracy, and it’s past time for leaders on both sides of the aisle to put an end to the disgraceful practice of partisan gerrymandering,” said Hogan, who along with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs.
The district, currently represented by Democrat David Trone, extends from the Gaithersburg and Potomac to the state’s western panhandle. While the district has been a solidly Democratic seat for the last four elections, that was not the case before.
For 20 years, Republican Roscoe Bartlett represented a reliably red sixth district, but in 2011, the General Assembly approved a new boundary for the sixth, incorporating more parts of heavily blue-Montgomery County. In the 2012 election, now with many more Democratic voters in the district, Democratic challenger John Delaney easily defeated Bartlett to flip the district blue.
While states are required to adjust their congressional district every 10 years after the census, there were no legal mandates that prohibit Maryland politicians from drawing the districts in a partisan way in 2011. Maryland’s previous governor, Martin O’Malley, admitted that the new districts the state brought in 2011, were done so purposely to benefit Democrats.
“When state officials use redistricting to burden a particular group of voters because of their political views, with the express goal of making it harder for those – for that group of voters to win elections, and when that goal is achieved, so that group of voters is ordinarily doomed to usual electoral defeat under the map, and when the state cannot come forward with a legitimate governmental interest to justify the burdens imposed, the map has to be neutrally redrawn,” said Michael B. Kimberly, who represented the appellees in the case.
While Republicans in the state have cried foul, Maryland Democrats have taken a more national focus to the issue. While some admit that state’s Congressional districts are unfair for Republican voters, Democratic politicians said they only redrew the lines to counter-balance Republican gerrymandering in other states like North Carolina.
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s appeal of the 2018 federal ruling will bring some finality to the question in Maryland, as the Supreme Court will likely have the final say over the matter.
On behalf of the state, Steve M. Sullivan, the Solicitor General of Maryland, argued last week in oral arguments that just because the state drew the district to favor Democrats, it does not mean Democrats are always destined to win the district, citing Hogan’s recent re-election, where he won the Sixth district.
“Well, if…you say the intent was – was a partisan intent, yes, it was successful, except you still have a district that’s capable of voting Republican,” Sullivan told the justices. “The Sixth District voted overwhelmingly for our Republican governor, Larry Hogan. So it’s not a district that’s locked in for Democrats.”
The Supreme Court will likely issue its opinions on the case in late June or early July.