Judge sets tentative trial date for Congressional redistricting challenges, will soon rule on motion to dismiss

The Anne Arundel County Circuit Court building. Photo by Bennett Leckrone.

Challenges to Maryland’s new congressional district map could go to trial days before the already-extended candidate filing deadline next month, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia said she plans to rule on a motion to dismiss the case by next week. But if a trial is necessary, it would start on March 15; Last week, the Court of Appeal moved the deadline for submitting applications to March 22.

Battaglia, who served as an associate judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals between 2001 and 2016, stressed that the legal process would move “quickly,” given the fast-approaching June 28 primaries.

On Wednesday, she weighed arguments on whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Republican voters in the state’s eight congressional districts.

The trial, Szeliga v. Lamone, charges that the congressional map adopted by Democratic lawmakers in a December special session violates Article I, Section 7 of the Maryland Constitution by intentionally diluting Republican votes. This article requires the General Assembly to “adopt laws necessary to preserve the purity of elections”.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two Republican state delegates: Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) and Del. Christopher T. Adams (R-Lower Shore).

Lawsuits against new Congressional map focus on alleged violations of the state constitution rather than the U.S. Constitution after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on partisan disputes at the state level Status in Benisek v. Lamone. This case centered on the state’s 6th congressional district as it was drawn in 2011.

Whether the Maryland Constitution applies to congressional cards was a key point in the plaintiffs’ and state’s arguments on Wednesday. Strider Dixon, an attorney representing Republican voters in Szeliga v. Lamone, argued that the General Assembly violated its duty to pass laws that protect “election purity” by drawing a map that intentionally favors the Democratic Party.

“When he gets to that point, that’s when he gets corrupted,” Dixon said.

The biggest map change happened in the 1st arrondissement. This district, which is currently represented by Maryland’s only Republican U.S. Congressman, Andrew P. Harris, previously included parts of Harford, Baltimore, and Carroll counties along with the east coast.

According to the map enacted by lawmakers, the 1st District is losing territory in northern Maryland and expanding across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to include parts of central Anne Arundel County along with the east coast, as well as part of eastern Harford County. This change should make the district more competitive for Democrats in future elections.

Battaglia, however, questioned whether partisan gerrymandering was considered corrupt. She said she had looked at hundreds of cases of redistricting surrounding partisanship and found no case that declared partisan gerrymandering to be explicitly corrupt.

Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento argued that the provisions of Maryland’s constitution did not apply to congressional districts by asking Battaglia to dismiss the case.

Trento also questioned whether the new map represented an “extreme” partisan gerrymander, since Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland. He argued that the framers of the state constitution assumed that politics would be inherent in the redistricting process by turning the task over to the legislature.

“The constitution provides that the political branches will practice politics by doing this,” Trento said.

Trento also called for a speedy legal process and warned that the National Board of Elections was running out of time to prepare for the June 28 primary.

Battaglia said she plans to move the matter forward quickly, but noted that election dates are not set in stone and primary elections can be pushed back if necessary. For example, the 2020 primary elections were originally scheduled for April – but were pushed back to June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday’s hearing also included plaintiffs from another challenge to the Congressional map, brought by the national conservative group Judicial Watch and Del. Neil C. Parrot (R-Washington), who argue that the rules governing the size and shape of legislative districts should be expanded. at the limits of Congress as well.

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