SCOTUS to hear law student's redistricting case

November 3, 2015

Two things set first-year law student Stephen Shapiro apart from his classmates at American University in Washington. At 55, he’s old enough to be a father to most of his classmates. And on Wednesday, a lawsuit he filed will be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Shapiro’s case began with his frustration over the way Maryland redrew the state’s eight congressional districts in 2011. Shapiro sees the shapes of some of the districts as nonsensical. But several months after he sued over the districts in 2013, arguing in part that they violated his First Amendment rights, a judge threw the lawsuit out, ruling it wasn't based on a valid legal theory.

Shapiro says a federal law called the Three-Judge Court Act required the judge to at least forward his lawsuit to a special three-judge panel. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether the dismissal was proper.

Redistricting has been an interest of Shapiro’s since the 1990s, when the district where he lived, just north of Washington, D.C., was redrawn. But the state’s most recent redrawing of its districts by Democrats really bothered him. Before redistricting, the state’s eight seats were held by six Democrats and two Republicans. Afterward, Democrats hold seven seats and Republicans only one.

Shapiro, a moderate Democrat, says he understands lawmakers’ desire to pick up seats for the party. But he thinks there were other ways to draw the map that would have accomplished that goal and made more sense, connecting voters with similar interests and concerns. In particular, Shapiro objects to districts where narrow “ribbons” of land link larger regions, bringing together areas he says have little to do with one another.

He isn't the only one who has criticized the state’s redistricting map or even sued over it. One federal judge ruling in another Maryland redistricting case likened the state's 3rd District to "a broken-winged pterodactyl" while a second judge described it as "a Rorschach-like eyesore." But other lawsuits failed, and Shapiro couldn't get a lawyer interested in his case.

“Most wouldn't even return my messages,” he said.

So during the day he worked for the Labor Department and on nights and weekends he drafted his lawsuit, looking at other redistricting lawsuits available online as guides. He also recruited two other Maryland residents to join the suit: John Benisek of Washington County, a registered Republican who is active in the tea party, and Maria Pycha, a Republican Party official in Baltimore County. Pycha said she saw the case as a long shot but said, “I'm always willing to at least try.”

Shapiro filed his 26-page, 16-exhibit case in federal court in late 2013. After the case was dismissed and he lost an appeal, Shapiro was connected through a friend to Washington lawyer Michael Kimberly, co-director of the Yale Law School's Supreme Court Clinic. Kimberly thought the case was one the court would want to rule on and agreed to work on it for free.

The court announced June 8 that it would take the case, just hours before Shapiro took the law school admissions test. Since starting school in the fall, he’s kept a separate notebook with tidbits he heard in class that he thought might be helpful for his case.

“Steve, as evidenced in his enrollment in law school, has an above-average interest in litigation and has taken a very hands-on approach,” said Kimberly, who will argue the case before the court.

Shapiro said he'll skip his contracts class to watch.

“Hopefully the professor won’t object,” he said.


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