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Baltimore County rebuts redistricting suit

John Lee
The Towson Historic Courthouse, the seat of county government. Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County has asked a federal judge to reject a legal challenge to its redistricting map.

In papers filed January 31 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, attorneys for the county argue the council district map drawn by the County Council does not dilute Black voting strength.

The suit against the county, brought by the NAACP Baltimore County Branch and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, alleges that the map weakens the political power of African Americans countywide because the county’s fourth council district is more than 70% Black.

The suit argues that thousands of those voters should be moved to an adjacent district to create a second Black majority district and asks for a preliminary injunction to block the use of the map.

About 30% of Baltimore County’s population is Black.

The case is scheduled to be argued before District Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby on February 15. Griggsby was appointed by President Biden last year.

In its legal filing, the county counters that the makeup of the fourth district does not dilute Black voting power in two adjacent council districts, the first and the second.

“Although no Black candidates have run for County Council in those districts, Black-preferred candidates have run and won council seats, while Black candidates who are also Black-preferred candidates have run for and won other local elections out of the same districts,” the county argues.

Debbie Jeon, the legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, said they agree that when “elections only involve white candidates, white Democrats are supported by Black people and can get elected.

“The problem is that that doesn’t happen when the person’s Black.”

Jeon said there is clear evidence that when white and Black candidates square off, white voters “block vote” to defeat Black candidates.

Jeon calls the county’s legal arguments “surprisingly weak.”

Attorneys for the county declined to comment.

In their filing, the county’s lawyers also dismiss the idea that a Black candidate cannot win in a white majority district in the county. They point to the 2018 election of Cheryl Pasteur to the school board. The school board and the council use the same districts. Pasteur is Black. She ran in the second district and defeated a white opponent, garnering 66% of the vote.

“So not only did Black voters support Ms. Pasteur, but she won sufficient white crossover votes to defeat a white candidate,” the county’s filing states.

In her own legal filing supporting the NAACP’s suit, Pasteur said her opponent essentially “did not mount a campaign.”

Pasteur wrote, “The final result literally brought me to my knees, because my team and I were not sure that, at the end, my commitment and experience would be enough.”

The seven-member County Council has one Black member. Despite that, the county argues that the council has taken actions to help Black residents. It points to police reform, passed in 2020, that “addressed Black community needs and was strongly supported by Black community groups.”

It also says that Black residents in Baltimore County have in recent years “achieved huge gains in the areas of employment and education.”

In opposing the preliminary injunction asked for by the NAACP and ACLU, the county argues “the public interest will be harmed by throwing out a legitimate and legally adopted redistricting plan on the 2022 election cycle.”

The County Council in January hired the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP to represent it in the redistricting case. The contract is for one year and will not exceed $850,000.

County Attorney James Benjamin requested the county hire the firm, telling the council his office “does not have available in-house attorneys with the requisite subject matter expertise to handle this complex legal matter.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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