A little-noticed lawsuit brought by a Maryland man challenging the state’s contorted congressional districts will be heard this fall by the Supreme Court — where it has the potential to open a new line of constitutional attack for opponents of gerrymandering. Stephen M. Shapiro, a former federal worker from Bethesda, argues that the political map drawn by state Democrats after the 2010 census violated the First Amendment rights of Republicans by placing them in districts in which they were in the minority, marginalizing them based solely on their political views. The issue before the Supreme Court is whether a lower court judge had the authority to dismiss the suit before it was heard by a three-judge panel. But Shapiro hopes the justices will also take an interest in his underlying claim. Most redistricting court challenges are rooted in the 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. If Shapiro’s approach is endorsed by federal courts, supporters say, it could open a new approach to challenging partisan political maps.
“Once you open the window of this case, it presents a fascinating question of First Amendment law,” said Jeremy D. Farris, an attorney representing the good-government group Common Cause.
No one paid Shapiro much attention when he filed the suit in 2013. By then, the map drawn by state Democrats after the 2010 census already had been approved by voters and upheld three time by a federal court. Shapiro, who has no legal training, was representing himself — another sign his case was going nowhere. “Not being a lawyer, it wasn’t the easiest undertaking in the world,” he said. “I just felt it was not something that we as a state or a party should be doing.”
The case, filed against state election officials, heads to oral arguments this fall as redistricting has emerged again as a potent issue nationally and in Maryland.