A federal court in Maryland has thrown out the state’s congressional map and ordered a new one drawn ahead of the 2020 elections. The three-judge panel’s unanimous order comes as another partisan gerrymandering case out of North Carolina appears headed for the Supreme Court. The order also comes less than a day after four states passed key ballot measures to change the way their district lines will be drawn in 2021.
The court’s decision in Benisek v. Lamone is a long-awaited victory for the Republican voters who brought the case. They have been fighting the Democratic legislature’s partisan gerrymander for five years, first filing their suit in 2013. Maryland’s congressional map — which was drawn in 2011 — is a prime example of a plan that unfairly stacks the deck in favor of one party. The plan has locked in an artificial 7-1 advantage for the Democrats on Maryland’s congressional slate, making the map extremely unresponsive to voters.
The Republican voters who brought this lawsuit claim that the 2011 plan violated their rights under the First Amendment. The court agreed in a two-part ruling.
First, two of the three judges concluded that the gerrymander violated the plaintiffs’ “representational rights” under the First Amendment. The mapmakers specifically set out to flip the Sixth District from red to blue in order to prevent GOP voters there from sending any more Republican candidates to Congress. The legislature accomplished this goal by removing large numbers of Republican voters from the Sixth District and replacing them with heavily-Democratic precincts from the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
Second, all three judges ruled the gerrymander violated the Republican voters’ “associational rights” under a different prong of the First Amendment. By creating a new Sixth District that leaned heavily Democratic, the mapmakers intentionally discouraged and confused Republican voters, undercutting their ability to organize and fundraise as a party.
The court underlined the importance of putting a new map in place by 2020. Permanently blocking the map was the only way, the court wrote, to prevent any further harm to Republican voters. The court also established a three-person backup commission to redraw the lines in case the Maryland legislature misses a March 7, 2019 deadline or fails to draw a fairer map.
Maryland now has another opportunity to appeal to the Supreme Court. (This case has already been up to the Court twice.) If the state files its appeal quickly, there’s still time for the Court to hear the case before the end of the term in June 2019. Maryland’s appeal would join another gerrymandering challenge out of North Carolina that is pending before the Court.
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