High court draws line on litigating state district maps
Decision will benefit Democrats in Virginia
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.