WASHINGTON (CN) - While Virginia Republicans refuted before the Supreme Court Monday claims that their state Legislature's redistricting plan was based on race rather than politics, the justices seemed more interested in determining if the lawmakers can bring the case at all.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in Whittman v. Personhuballah, the latest racial gerrymandering case to come before the court, and spent much of the day debating whether the Republican lawmakers appealing a lower court decision declaring Virginia's 2012 redistricting plan as unconstitutional have standing to appeal.
The redistricting plan at issue centers on Virginia's Third Congressional District, which some say was redrawn in 2012 to pack black voters into a single voting district to limit their political impact.
Most of the district is a squat, jagged rectangle that starts at Richmond and follows the James River toward the central Virginia coast. But the district breaks up when it nears the Chesapeake Bay, skipping over a chunk of land to envelop parts of Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk, all of which contain significant black populations.
As a result, 56.3 percent of the Third District's voting-age population is black, making it the only minority-majority district in the state.
Two voters in the district, Gloria Personhuballah and James Farkas, challenged the redistricting in 2013, saying it unconstitutionally reduced the influence of African-Americans in other districts. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed and has twice struck down the 2012 lines, replacing them with a new map meant to balance the racial makeup of the district.
But the whole of Virginia's congressional delegation appealed the lower court's decision, arguing the Legislature's motivations in redistricting were with protecting incumbents, not with drawing lines based on race.
That race and partisanship are so closely tied does not mean the Legislature was acting with a racist intent when dividing up the voting population, the lawmakers argued.
While the lawmakers opened up oral arguments Monday by reiterating this point, the question of the Legislature's motivation was not the predominant one the Supreme Court considered.
Instead, the eight-justice panel seemed keenly interested in whether the 10 current and former lawmakers can challenge the lower court decision at all.
None of the lawmakers who are appealing the lower court's decision live in or represent the Third Congressional District, though the group Monday insisted this is irrelevant.
The lower court's new lines have turned Rep. Randy Forbes' toss-up Fourth Congressional District deep blue, forcing the longtime congressman to seek election in a different district, Michael Carvin, who represents the Republicans, told the Supreme Court Monday.
Forbes has held office since 2001 and the redrawn lines have therefore caused him enough harm to give him standing to challenge the lower court's decision, Carvin argued.
"Defendants appealing an adverse order never argue that the adverse order violates their constitutional rights," Carvin said, according to a transcript. "They're arguing that it disrupts the status quo by changing the rules, and the status quo is what they are defending."
Carvin noted legislatures can redraw their lines to protect incumbents, and suggested hurting Forbes' chance of winning reelection would be an overreach by the judicial branch.