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Tuesday, 26 June 2018 23:40

Federal court rules against Va. House in racial gerrymandering case, orders new districting plan by Oct. 30 Featured

Written by Graham Moomaw | Richmond Times Dispatch
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A federal court ruled Tuesday that the Virginia House of Delegates unconstitutionally packed African-American voters into 11 legislative districts and ordered the General Assembly to draw new district lines by Oct. 30.

In a 2-1 opinion, a federal panel made up of district and appellate judges ruled that the House violated the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause by prioritizing race during the 2011 redistricting process.

"Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to this constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote in the majority opinion. 

The court instructed the General Assembly to craft a "remedial districting plan" by the fall, which could lead to a more Democratic-friendly electoral map for the 2019 legislative elections.

The challenged districts - most of which are represented by African-American lawmakers - are in the Richmond area, Petersburg and Hampton Roads. If the ruling holds, some black voters in majority-minority districts would likely be redrawn into neighboring districts that lean Republican, diminishing the GOP advantage in those districts.

Last year, Republicans held a 66-34 majority in the House of Delegates, an advantage that plummeted to 51-49 after Democrats picked up more than a dozen seats in the November elections.

In a statement, House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said Republicans will file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We are disappointed that the federal court reversed its previous decision to uphold these legislative districts," Cox said. "These districts were drawn with overwhelming bipartisan support, including with the support of a majority of the African-American members of the House of Delegates."

Lawyers for the House GOP insisted that the 55 percent African-American voter threshold they used in the 2011 redistricting plan, which passed with bipartisan support, was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act and preserve the rights of black voters to elect their own representatives. 

The federal case was one of two recent lawsuits with potential to reshape the Republican-controlled General Assembly by making several GOP-held districts more competitive.

The suit, filed by Democratic lawyer Marc E. Elias on behalf of a group Virginia voters, argued the House drew too many African-American voters into majority-black districts, diluting their voting power elsewhere. 

"I hope that before October the Republican legislature takes seriously an obligation to comply with the court's order and draw districts that are constitutional and protect the rights of all Virginians," Elias said.

When asked about a possible appeal, Elias said "the courtroom doors remain open to people who have good claims and people who have frivolous claims."

Judge Robert E. Payne dissented from the ruling, saying the evidence in the case did not prove that race was the deciding factor.

The court had upheld the districts in an earlier ruling. But in early 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed the court to reconsider the case using a narrower legal standard. The  judges did not have time to decide the case before last year's House elections.

Anti-gerrymandering advocates have mounted a years-long push for changes to Virginia's system, which allows state lawmakers - not an independent commission or third-party experts - to draw Virginia's electoral maps. Bipartisan efforts to depoliticize redistricting have largely failed in the General Assembly, but several groups have turned to the courts as an alternative to legislative reform.

In May, the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld 11 statehouse districts that the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 claimed were so strangely shaped that they violated a compactness requirement laid out in the Virginia Constitution.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who supports nonpartisan redistricting, called Tuesday's ruling "good news for Virginia voters."

"This is an opportunity for us to continue the bipartisanship we've built in Richmond, and to draw districts that are fair, nonpartisan and accurately represent every Virginian, no matter who they are or where the live," Northam, who voted for the 2011 redistricting plan while serving in the state Senate, said in a statement.

Tuesday's ruling is similar to a 2016 court decision that imposed a new Virginia congressional map after finding that state lawmakers drew too many African-American voters into the 3rd District represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott. In that case, the judges redrew the congressional map themselves.

The changes to districts surrounding Scott's tilted the 4th District Democratic, leading the incumbent at the time, Republican Randy Forbes, to abandon the district and clearing the way for the election of Democrat Donald McEachin.

Link to original article from Richmond Times Dispatch

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