(CN) – Virginia lawmakers used race as the predominant factor in redrawing the state’s Third Congressional District, creating a highly irregular district aimed at keeping black voters within its limits, a panel of federal judges ruled.
In 2012, the Virginia legislature approved a redistricting plan that redrew the lines for Third Congressional District, a majority black district. It is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, the state’s only black congressman, who has been in office since 1993.
Former delegate William Janis – a Republican and an architect of the redistricting plan – said that a main concern was to ensure that the Third District “not retrogress in minority voter influence,” to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The Janis plan increased the black voting-age population in the Third District from 53 percent to 56 percent, but went to great lengths to achieve that. Three individuals who sued over the plan described the boundaries of district as including “parts of Richmond and the north shore of the James River. It then crosses the James River for the first time and juts west to capture parts of Petersburg. The district again crosses to the north shore of the James River to include parts of Newport News, though this portion of the district is not contiguous with any other part of the district. The district then hops over part of Congressional District 2 to include part of Hampton and crosses the James River and Chesapeake Bay to capture part of Norfolk, which is not contiguous with any other part of the district.”
The Justice Department approved the redistricting plan anyway, but a year later the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of race discrimination to clear redistricting plans with the federal government.
The individuals, all voters from the Third District, sued shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County claiming the new district lines are gerrymandered along racial lines and pack black voters into the Third District to reduce their influence in other districts.
A three-judge panel of one circuit judge and two district judges heard the case in the Eastern District of Virginia, and a 2-1 majority on Tuesday found significant evidence of racial gerrymandering.
Writing for the majority, Judge Allyson Duncan acknowledged that the Legislature is presumed to act in good faith, but said that “it is inappropriate to confuse this presumption of good faith with an obligation to parse legislative intent in search of ‘proper’ versus ‘improper’ motives underlying the use of race as the predominant factor in redistricting, as the dissent does here. The legislative record here is replete with statements indicating that race was the legislature’s paramount concern in enacting the 2012 plan.”
The government does not deny that the new Third District lines are highly irregular and composed of a loose chain of predominantly black communities. Statistics show that the third district is the least compact district in Virginia, according to the judgment.
“Here, the record establishes that, in drawing the boundaries of the Third Congressional District, the legislature used water contiguity as a means to bypass white communities and connect predominantly African-American populations in areas such as Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton,” Duncan wrote in the 48-page opinion.
The majority held that the plaintiffs’ alternative plan for the Third District was a more constitutional fit.
“While ‘the Constitution does not mandate regularity of district shape,’ plaintiffs’ circumstantial evidence of the Third Congressional District’s irregularities and inconsistencies with respect to the traditional districting criteria described above, coupled with clear statements of legislative intent, supports our conclusion that, in this case, ‘traditional districting criteria were subordinated to race,'” Duncan said.
The court ruled that Virginia’s November 2014 elections may proceed under the current district lines, given that plaintiffs are responsible for waiting 19 months before challenging the redistricting plan. However, the Virginia legislature must remedy the unconstitutional districts at its next session, the judges said.
U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady joined Duncan’s opinion. But U.S. District Judge Robert Payne dissented while repeatedly noting his respect for the majority’s views.
“I think that the record in this case, considered as a whole, shows that the Virginia General Assembly set out to redraw district lines to protect incumbents and, in so doing, it also sought to respect traditional redistricting principles,” Payne wrote. “The Legislature was also fully aware of its obligation to comply with federal law and thus, of necessity, it considered race in trying to assure that compliance. But, at all times and in all the decisions it made, the predominant factor in the General Assembly’s redistricting decisions was the protection of incumbents, not race.”
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