(CN) – Maryland officials must draw up a new congressional district map that isn’t tainted by partisan gerrymandering, a three-judge panel has ruled.
The decision, handed down in the U.S. District Court in Maryland on Wednesday, stems from a challenge by several Republican voters who live in the state’s 6th congressional district and claimed state officials unfairly redrew the boundaries of their district in 2011 to favor Democrats.
On review, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer, Chief U.S. District Judge James Bredar and U.S. District George Russell concluded what they deemed the “dramatic redrawing” of the district roundly disfavored Republican voters.
“In creating the map, the State, on net, removed roughly 66,000 registered Republicans from the Sixth District and added some 24,000 registered Democrats … bringing about the single greatest alteration of voter makeup in any district in the nation following the 2010 census,” Judge Neimeyer wrote.
“To be sure, citizens have no constitutional right to be assigned to a district that is likely to elect a representative that shares their views,” he continued. “But they do have a right under the First Amendment not to have the value of their vote diminished because of the political views they have expressed through their party affiliation and voting history.”
Chief Judge Bredar wrote in a concurring opinion that he found what Maryland did “noxious” and “a cancer on our democracy.”
The panel ordered state officials to submit a new map to the court by March 7, 2019, that adheres to the Maryland Constitution’s requirements for “contiguity, compactness, regard for natural boundaries, and regard for boundaries of political subdivisions.”
If state officials fail to do so by the deadline, the judges said they will appoint a commission to produce a redistricting plan.
“If the government uses partisan registration and voting data purposefully to draw a district that disfavors one party, it cannot escape liability by re-characterizing its actions as intended to favor the other party,” the ruling stated. “The First Amendment does not — indeed, cannot — distinguish between these intents because they are one and the same when applicable to two-party elections. It is impossible to flip a seat to the Democrats without flipping it away from the Republicans.”
This is the second time the court took up Maryland’s congressional district plan. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case last spring, but decided in June to refer it back to the lower court for consideration.
As a result, the disputed map remained in place for Tuesday’s congressional elections.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, said in a written statement that the ruling confirms that the state has “the most gerrymandered districts in the country.
He went on to describe the ruling as “a victory for the vast majority of Marylanders who want free and fair elections and the numerous advocates from across the political spectrum who have been fighting partisan gerrymandering in our state for decades.”
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who defended the state against the lawsuit, said the office is “reviewing options” in the wake of the ruling.