Virginia GOP Vows Appeal Order to Redraw House Districts

A map of the 12 impacted state House districts via Virginia’s Public Access Project.

RICHMOND (CN) – Virginia Republicans are hoping the US Supreme Court will overturn a federal court ruling which found 12 of the state’s House districts were an illegal gerrymander based on race.

In a statement sent out shortly after the release of the opinion on Tuesday, GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox said his party was disappointed with the ruling, especially considering the 2011 maps were approved with a bipartisan vote including delegates from the majority minority districts, which the courts say must now be redrawn.

“It would be premature to even consider any action by the General Assembly until the Supreme Court speaks on these districts,” wrote Cox in the statement, citing the Abbot v. Perez decision released by the high court on Monday which found one of four house seats there violated the Voting Rights Act. “As the Texas case shows, the Supreme Court is willing to overturn lower court decision in redistricting cases”

The challenge to the 2012 maps started when voters from each district first challenged them in a complaint filed in 2014 . A federal court upheld the map, but on appeal to the Supreme Court, in a 7-1 ruling, found otherwise and the high court ordered the lower court to review the maps for racial-bias in all but one district.

In a 93-page opinion, written by U.S. District Judge Barbara Keenan, she reexamined how the lines were drawn and the self-admitted use of a metric used to draw the maps: race.

According to the opinion, the Virginia General Assembly admitted they used a benchmark percentile to create the districts: 55 percent of the population in each of these districts would identify as minorities. And while the “55 percent” figure worked in the one district the Supreme Court did not send back, Keenan wrote using such a static number, instead of a “narrowly tailored” method, caused them to ran afoul of the 14th Amendment’s ban on discrimination based on race.

“The evidence shows that these race-based decisions dwarfed any independent consideration of traditional redistricting criteria,” she wrote. “A court could conclude that the legislature “relied on race in substantial disregard of customary and traditional districting practices.”

“Using race in the service of a legitimate goal does not alter the underlying fact that the legislature has selected voters for inclusion in a district based on race.”

Virginia is among the states that, in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act, must submit redrawn district maps to a federal court in Washington, D.C. for further scrutiny. But the U.S. Constitution still bars gerrymandering by race and because they set a baseline of “55 percent” for majority minority districts, it violates the law.

“It’s like making a custom-made suit and trying to fit it on everyone else,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, a group that aims to create more representative districts during the 2021 redraw session. “[The Supreme Court said these districts] need to be narrowly tailored … not a one-size-fits-all proposition and that’s what the court struck down.”

Cannon was pleased with the ruling, but he questioned Cox’s hopes for the Supreme Court reversing the order.

“The racial gerrymander stuff is pretty well-worn ground,” he said, pointing to the 7-1 2016 decision which found these districts likely were not narrowly tailored enough. “I think you can count on some consistency there as they have been consistent on this for some time.”

But he did say Cox was right on one thing – the 2012 map was a bipartisan effort.

“An overwhelming number of Democrats voted on this plan in 2011,” he said. “This is a bipartisan problem and exhibit A of how bad this problem is.”

Still, Cannon thinks it will be democrats who gain seats because of the redraw, which could impact as many as 33 House seats including some of the most hotly contested as part of the state’s 2017 “blue wave.”

For their part, the Virginia Democratic party is celebrating the decision.

“Virginia voters deserve fair voting lines,” wrote Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker. “It is truly a win for all Virginians.”

Keenan has ordered a new map be redrawn by October 2018.

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