- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A federal court heard testimony Tuesday in a lawsuit over whether Maryland’s new congressional map illegally dilutes the influence of black voters.

Attorneys for a group of nine voters argued before a three-judge panel that officials in the Democrat-dominated state willfully split up black communities to spread their voters among several districts. They also argued the move deprived the state - which is 29 percent black - of a third majority-black district.

The plaintiffs sued the state last month, weeks after the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, approved a new map of the state’s eight congressional districts.

“What you have here is essentially white politicians taking advantage of black voters to protect their incumbents,” said Jason Torchinsky, an attorney for the nine plaintiffs, who are backed by the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, a black activist group.

Lawmakers approved a map in October that would retain the state’s two majority-black districts - represented by Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Donna F. Edwards - and give Democrats a strong chance of unseating Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in Western Maryland’s long-conservative 6th District.

Mr. Torchinsky argued at the hearing in Greenbelt that state leaders gerrymandered the map to take out Mr. Bartlett and prevent a black majority in Southern Maryland’s 5th District - represented by Democratic Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer - in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Mr. Torchinsky asked the court to draw a new map that would make Mr. Hoyer’s district majority black.

Their plan has been supported by many state Republicans, in part because it would likely remove some Democrats from Mr. Bartlett’s district.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman argued on the state’s behalf that the new map affords proper minority representation and succeeds in making several districts, including Mr. Bartlett‘s, more competitive.

As evidence, he noted that leading GOP state lawmakers in three districts - including two represented by Democrats - are considering runs for Congress next year.

“The evidence on the ground in each case isn’t that this is party gerrymandering,” Mr. Friedman said, “but that five of the eight districts have been made more competitive.”

The judicial panel, led by 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, was highly skeptical of the notion that party politics did not play a part in the map.

However, the judges cast doubts over whether plaintiffs have the evidence to prove their case, which is that state officials intentionally sought to limit minority influence.

They also pointed out that a court order implementing a third majority-black district could give black voters overrepresentation, potentially opening the state to more lawsuits.

“I don’t understand your case to order a third black district when the population is [less than] 30 percent,” Judge Niemeyer said.

The judges said they could issue an opinion in coming weeks.

State officials said they hope the panel can decide by Jan. 1 in order to not delay with the state’s primary schedule.

Candidates must file by Jan. 11 for the April 3 primary.

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