High court draws line on lit­i­gat­ing state dis­trict maps

De­ci­sion will benefit Democrats in Vir­ginia

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

Vir­ginia’s leg­isla­tive elec­tions this year will be held un­der new court-or­dered maps af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Mon­day that the Repub­li­can­led House of Del­e­gates can’t step in and in­de­pen­dently ap­peal a case that the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral has given up.

Democrats say the new maps, with lines more fa­vor­able to black vot­ers’ po­lit­i­cal power, give them a leg up as they try to win con­trol of the state House — where Re­pub­li­cans have a slim ma­jor­ity — for the first time in two decades.

Vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates called the de­ci­sion a vic­tory for rank-and-file vot­ers and a blow to politi­cians try­ing to pro­tect their own power.

The rul­ing came on pro­ce­dural grounds, with the five-jus­tice ma­jor­ity say­ing the state’s Re­pub­li­can-led House doesn’t have the abil­ity to step in and pur­sue a court case if the at­tor­ney gen­eral, a Demo­crat, has sur­ren­dered.

Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg, writ­ing for the ma­jor­ity, said Vir­ginia’s style of gov­ern­ment is sim­i­lar to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s, with power to pur­sue cases vested out­side the leg­is­la­ture — in this case an elected at­tor­ney gen­eral.

One cham­ber of the state’s leg­is­la­ture can’t ig­nore that, she said, re­ject­ing the House’s claims of stand­ing to sue.

“In short, Vir­ginia would rather stop than fight on. One house of its bi­cam­eral leg­is­la­ture can­not alone con­tinue the lit­i­ga­tion against the will of its part­ners in the leg­isla­tive process,” Judge Gins­burg ruled.

She was joined by Jus­tices Clarence Thomas, So­nia So­tomayor, Elena Ka­gan and Neil M. Gor­such.

Jus­tice Sa­muel A. Al­ito Jr., writ­ing for the four jus­tices who dis­sented, said the high court seemed to be im­pos­ing the fed­eral sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers sys­tem onto a state.

He said that while Jus­tice Gins­burg’s read on the lim­ited pow­ers of a sin­gle cham­ber of a leg­is­la­ture might ap­ply to Congress, “I do not see how we can say any­thing sim­i­lar about the stand­ing of state leg­is­la­tors or state leg­isla­tive bod­ies.”

Jus­tice Al­ito said that is par­tic­u­larly true in this case, where the state House has an in­ter­est in how its lines are drawn, mak­ing it a nat­u­ral party to carry on an ap­peal.

The de­ci­sion was handed down as Vir­ginia was gear­ing up for mo­men­tous state leg­isla­tive elec­tions.

The Gen­eral Assem­bly, un­der Re­pub­li­can con­trol for two decades, could eas­ily shift, with all 40 Se­nate seats and all 100 House seats on bal­lots in a state that has drifted to the left in re­cent years.

Democrats say the new maps pave the way for the House, cur­rently at 51 Re­pub­li­cans and 49 Democrats, to turn.

“When we com­pete un­der fair maps, we win. The Supreme Court has helped pave the way for Vir­ginia Democrats to flip the Gen­eral Assem­bly,” said Jes­sica Post, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Leg­isla­tive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, which works on state­house is­sues.

The old maps, which had been used for most of this decade, were drawn when Re­pub­li­cans con­trolled all the levers of gov­ern­ment.

Democrats com­plained that the lines were drawn to “pack” black vot­ers into a few dis­tricts, di­lut­ing their power, and vot­ers in 12 dis­tricts sued.

A three-judge panel sided with the vot­ers and ruled the maps an il­le­gal racial ger­ry­man­der.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring ac­cepted the court’s rul­ing, but the Re­pub­li­can-led House, which par­tic­i­pated in the lower court as in­ter­venors, wanted to ap­peal.

The high court said it didn’t have stand­ing to do so.

The de­ci­sion did not delve into whether Vir­ginia’s old maps were, in fact, un­con­sti­tu­tional ger­ry­man­ders. But it leaves the lower court’s rul­ing in place.

The new maps were used for last week’s pri­maries and now will be the bat­tle­ground for the gen­eral election in Novem­ber.

The state House Demo­cratic Cau­cus called the rul­ing a vic­tory for civil rights.

“In the past four elec­tions for the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Vir­gini­ans have voted in racially ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts that violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion,” the Democrats said. “The ‘pack­ing’ of African Amer­i­can vot­ers in the 2011 maps has di­luted that fun­da­men­tal right for so many Vir­gini­ans of color.”

Re­pub­li­cans found no short­age of irony and hypocrisy. They pointed out that among those cheer­ing on the Supreme Court were Mr. Her­ring and Gov. Ralph Northam, both of whom voted for the maps as mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture — and both of whom were en­tan­gled this year in black­face scan­dals.

Former U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr., who weighed in by calling the rul­ing a salve for black vot­ers, was in charge of the Jus­tice De­part­ment that gave its seal of ap­proval to the maps in 2011.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Re­pub­li­can, said Mr. Her­ring should have de­fended the state maps on ap­peal.

“Re­gard­less of this de­ci­sion, we are pre­pared to de­fend and grow our ma­jor­ity in the House of Del­e­gates,” he said.

The case did not touch on po­lit­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing. The Supreme Court is still ex­pected to rule on that is­sue later this month.

But some vot­ing an­a­lysts said the de­ci­sion does lay out rules that will limit the power of leg­is­la­tors to de­fend their maps as the na­tion prepares for a new round of redis­trict­ing af­ter the 2020 cen­sus.

The League of Women Vot­ers called the case “an im­por­tant mile­stone” in set­ting the bal­ance of pow­ers be­tween ag­grieved vot­ers and leg­is­la­tors, with the court sig­nal­ing skep­ti­cism about law­mak­ers’ at­tempts to pro­tect themselves.

“This is a vic­tory for vot­ers be­cause it dis­al­lows leg­is­la­tors from bring­ing law­suits to pro­tect their own po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests,” said Chris Car­son, the league’s na­tional pres­i­dent.

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