Supreme Court Orders Review of Virginia House Districts for Racial Gerrymandering

The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the Eastern District Court of Virginia used “an incorrect legal standard to determine that race did not predominate” in 11 of the 12 Virginia House of Delegates districts in the case in the aftermath of the 2010 census.  Voters in those redrawn districts filed suit arguing that the new districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The case – Bethune Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections – was remanded back to the Eastern District Court of Virginia “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The decision comes eight months before gubernatorial and legislative races in Virginia. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Anti-gerrymandering advocates hailed the ruling as a victory for efforts to produce a more competitive political map, though the Supreme Court chose to leave it to a U.S. District Court to rehear the case, applying a different legal standard.”

Democratic election attorney Marc Elias, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, took to Twitter to call the decision a “major redistricting victory… Big win against GOP racial gerrymandering.”

Read more details about the case from SCOTUSblog.

UPDATE: Here’s a sampling of reactions to the court decision.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez:

“Voters should choose their elected leaders – not the other way around. But for years, Virginia Republicans have schemed to change the state’s legislative districts to rig elections in their favor. But efforts to combat these extreme partisan tactics are succeeding at every level. The Supreme Court’s decision this morning and a  key state court decision yesterday have put us firmly on the path to ensuring Republican gerrymandering efforts will fail. We must continue to fight back against discriminatory efforts to block access to the ballot box and that is why I have vowed to create a fully staffed Voter Empowerment and Protection Office so that we can ensure that disenfranchisement through gerrymandering becomes a thing of the past.”

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post:

“Virginia Republicans illegally silenced the voices of African-American voters, and today’s ruling is a step towards giving all Virginians fair representation in their government,” said Post. “The district maps engineered by Republican legislators diminished the voices of specific groups of voters just to protect GOP power. This court decision, along with recent rulings in Alabama and Wisconsin, mark important progress in the fight to enfranchise voters and dismantle artificial Republican majorities, and these decisions serve as incontrovertible evidence that Republicans can’t be trusted to protect voters’ rights in the next round of redistricting. DLCC continues our fight to elect more Democratic lawmakers to dislodge map-drawing pens from the grip of the GOP.”

Virginia House Democratic Leader David Toscano and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring:

“Virginia is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, and we applaud the court’s decision as a critical step toward correcting a system that is rigged. Voters should choose their representatives, but in Virginia, it’s the other way around. Seventy-four percent of Virginians support giving control of redistricting to an independent commission, and we saw unprecedented public demand during the last legislative session for meaningful reform. We look forward to the continued progression of this case, and we renew our commitment to ending gerrymandering in Virginia.”

There are no public statements from the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of Virginia, or the Virginia House Republican Caucus as of this writing. Any comment or statement they make will be added in a future update.

UPDATE II: Marc Elias points out this Election Law Blog analysis of the ruling by Richard Pildes:

As someone who litigates these cases and has written extensively about racial redistricting, I consider today’s decision a major new precedent with broad implications, not just for racial gerrymandering issues, but for partisan gerrymandering ones potentially as well.

On racial gerrymandering and the Constitution, the Court’s opinion today is more forceful and clear than it has ever been that unconstitutional racial gerrymandering can occur even when a State draws districts that look regular and follow traditional districting principles.

This principle is going to make it significantly easier for plaintiffs to win racial gerrymandering claims.

UPDATE III: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe sent a letter to Virginia House and Senate Majority Leaders asking them to work with him to draw new district lines so that they can be in place in time for the fall elections. Here’s the key graphs:

This ruling sets the stage for protracted litigation at taxpayer-expense and further delay that will cast a shadow over our upcoming legislative elections — unless we find a more productive path forward. So today, I write to ask you and the House Republican Caucus to drop your defense of Virginia’s gerrymandered map and work with me on the nonpartisan redistricting plan our Commonwealth deserves.

To accomplish this, I ask that you agree to settle this litigation in a way that empowers the General Assembly to redraw the eleven House of Delegates districts that have been sent back to the District Court. Once that settlement is finalized, I am prepared to call a special session in order to pass new lines that have been prepared by an independent, nonpartisan panel. If we act quickly, we can finalize a new map before the 2017 legislative elections and prevent Virginians from voting yet again in unconstitutional gerrymandered districts.

For too long, the redistricting process has been defined by partisanship, racial politics, and costly litigation. Today we have the opportunity to reverse that history and put our Commonwealth on the right side of one of the most important issues of our time. I hope you will consider this request and join me in a nonpartisan process to strengthen democracy in Virginia.

Author: David de Sola

Editor/Publisher Political Wilderness

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