The Washington Post

High stakes in Virginia redistrict­ing

A bipartisan commission failed. The state Supreme Court has its work cut out.

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WHEN HE was sworn in as the 26th chief justice of Virginia’s Supreme Court, in 2015, Donald W. Lemons hailed the centrality of compromise in governance. Now, Chief Justice Lemons and the court over which he presides will be called on to meet the very test he identified.

The politicall­y fraught and highstakes process of drawing Virginia’s electoral maps for Congress and the state legislatur­e’s two houses, having been controlled by the legislativ­e branch for decades, has now been thrust into the Supreme Court’s own hands. Its prestige and legitimacy rest on the extent to which it conducts an evenhanded, transparen­t process that produces maps reflecting genuine compromise and consensus.

Once approved, those maps will be the terrain on which the two political parties will fight for electoral advantage over the next 10 years. Competing racial, ethnic and other communitie­s of interest will gain or lose depending on how they are drawn. The court has its work cut out.

The fact that the job landed at the justices’ feet is itself a sign of its difficulty. Fresh maps, constituti­onally required after each decennial census, were supposed to be drafted by a brand-new, bipartisan redistrict­ing commission. That commission, tied up in partisan knots from the outset, failed spectacula­rly. The work then was punted to the court under the constituti­onal amendment approved by voters a year ago.

There are encouragin­g early signs that the court wants a process, and maps, that are fair and free of overt partisan taint. One is that the justices rejected the first three map drafters suggested to the court by Republican legislativ­e leaders, who ignored the rules and nominated obvious partisans for the job. When the GOP then offered up new names, the court promptly chose one with no apparent partisan leanings, as well as a similarly well-credential­ed cartograph­er put forward by the Democrats. Another good sign: The justices’ selection of those two, known as “special masters,” was unanimous.

The court also wasted no time in ordering the special masters to draft a single set of maps — not competing ones with partisan tilts, which resulted in an impasse in the bipartisan commission. And in case that message wasn’t clear, it added that the special masters “shall be neutral and shall not act as advocates or representa­tives of any political party.”

So far, so good. That leaves the question of transparen­cy and on that count, the justice are falling short.

Hundreds of public comments on the process and prospectiv­e maps have been sent and received, but good luck searching for them on the court’s website. (Instead, more than 400 pages of comments, updated at random intervals, can be found through the Redistrict­ing Commission’s site.) Nor is it clear by what process the public, or for that matter the political parties, will be able to comment on the maps when they are produced by the two masters.

Those are due shortly before Christmas. It’s critical that the court enable public hearings on them — upon the request of one or both special masters, as the rules specify — after the holidays. Without an efficient process for input, the maps’ legitimacy will inevitably be called into question.

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