by Josh Averbach ‘18
On December 8, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed to mediate a dispute over the constitutionality of the Maryland state legislature’s use of gerrymandering–the practice through which state legislatures intentionally draw skewed districts for congressional and state legislature races to benefit their own party. The case involves district 6, which includes much of far-Western Maryland and some of Montgomery County, including a small part of Olney. In October, SCOTUS began hearing a separate gerrymandering case regarding Wisconsin’s districts.
State legislatures have long used their control over congressional districts for partisan gain. District-creators may spread opponents’ supporters so thin across districts that their numbers are insignificant everywhere. Conversely, they also may compact much of a party’s support into one district. Either method can cause a mismatch between voter support and representation. In the 2016 congressional elections, Republicans (who control most state legislatures) won 49.9 percent of votes nationwide but control 55 percent of House of Representatives seats, while Democrats received 47.3 percent of votes but only hold 44.8 percent of seats.
While Republicans have gained the most notoriety for gerrymandering, it is also used in blue states like Maryland, which sends seven Democrats and one Republican to the House of Representatives. Former Governor Martin O’Malley has admitted in a court deposition that “part of my intent was to create a map that, all things being legal and equal, would, nonetheless, be more likely to elect more Democrats rather than less.”
Montgomery County exhibits much of Maryland’s gerrymandering. Olney includes parts of district 8 (represented by Democrat Jamie Raskin), district 3 (represented by Democrat John Sarbanes), and district 6 (represented by Democrat John Delaney). District 3 combines areas of Montgomery County, Howard County, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City into what a federal judge once described as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate across the center of the state.” Maryland’s legislature carved up liberal Montgomery County so that a piece of it could be added to the rural, relatively conservative sixth district, allowing them to unseat a Republican who had represented the area for over two decades.
SCOTUS has a potential landmark case in Maryland’s Benisek v. Lamone. The plaintiffs, a group of district 6 Republicans, accuse O’Malley and the state legislature of violating their First Amendment rights by retaliating against them for their past support of Republicans. The district’s former representative, Republican Roscoe Bartlett, won reelection by 28 percent in 2010, but he lost by 21 percent in 2012 after redistricting.
Wisconsin’s case, Gill v. Whitford, addresses a different constitutional issue than does Maryland’s; the plaintiffs argue that Wisconsin’s Republican-skewed map violates their 14th Amendment right to equal protection. A victory for the plaintiff in either case could prompt SCOTUS to declare all partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional or to limit it, undeniably altering the balance of power in American politics. SCOTUS is expected to release a decision in the Wisconsin case by springtime, but the Maryland case’s timetable remains unclear.