A half-dozen Virginia voters filed a lawsuit this week asking a federal court to draw a new congressional map for 2012, alleging that the General Assembly has violated the state’s Constitution by not agreeing on new lines this year.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, with the state’s top three Republican leaders — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — named as defendants, along with three state election officials.
The state House and Senate passed competing congressional plans earlier this year but were never able to agree on a compromise map. On Nov. 9, one day after his party captured effective control of the state Senate, state House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) told reporters that redistricting would be punted until 2012.
“I really don’t see the point with a new legislature coming in in January,’’ Howell said, adding that Democrats “didn’t seem to want to” come back into session before the election to try to pass a map.
But as the lawsuit points out, Article II, Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution states that the General Assembly “shall draw electoral districts ... in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter.”
The suit also notes that any Virginia redistricting plan must be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure that it complies with the Voting Rights Act, a process that can take “at least 60 days and often several months to complete.” The filing deadline for congressional candidates in the state is March 29.
The current districts, which are based on the 2000 census results, violate voters’ civil rights, the lawsuit alleges, because population changes over the last decade mean some districts are much bigger than others. So the plaintiffs want the court to draw a map.
The lawsuit was filed by J. Gerald Hebert, a veteran Alexandria-based Democratic election law practitioner. In an interview, Hebert said the lawsuit was not being funded by any political party, but beyond that he declined to say who was paying him on the case. Hebert said he also planned to file suit in state court in Richmond Friday.
Hebert said the six plaintiffs — two registered voters from Richmond and one apiece from Fredericksburg, Leesburg, Lorton and Chesapeake — approached him about filing the suit.
Cuccinelli’s office, which will be tasked with defending against the lawsuit, predicted it would be unsuccessful.
"This lawsuit is similar to several others filed in connection to the reapportionment of the General Assembly," said Cuccinelli spokeswoman Caroline Gibson. “All of those suits were dismissed, and we would anticipate that this suit will have the same outcome.”
The Republican-controlled state House approved a map in April that would have made incumbents in both parties safer, likely preserving the current 8-3 partisan split in the congressional delegation for the near future. The Democratic-held Senate passed a different map that would create a new district with a significant percentage of minority votes, to go along with the current majority-minority seat held by Rep. Bobby Scott (D).
Bolling has alleged Democrats wanted the issue to go to the courts all along because they believe they can get a more favorable map that way. “They don’t have any serious interest in solving the issue,’’ Bolling said in September.