Virginia elections officials today promised to decide within a week when and under what plan the state will hold its scheduled fall elections for the House of Delegates.
The officials said they were being forced to make that decision after U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner refused again today to rule on the issue.
Warriner rejected arguments that a massive lawsuit challenging the House of Delegates reapportionment plan interferes with the elections for all 100 House seats. "Whatever law is in effect is undisturbed by this suit," Warriner said during a court hearing.
Trouble is, no one -- including state elections officials -- could say for certain today what law is in effect.
Attorneys for the state and groups protesting the General Assembly's 1981 reapportionment plan have urged Warriner, a member of a three-judge panel that will consider the challenges, to decide if the elections should be held under the plan in use for the past decade, the controversial plan approved this spring, or an entirely new plan drawn by the court. Warriner, a judicial conservative, turned their overtures aside, saying the panel would not rule on the matter until after the Justice Department completes its review of the plan under the Voting Rights Act.
The first formal hearing by the court panel is not scheduled until mid-August, a hearing that will come after the filing deadline for Sept. 8 party primaries around the state.
"This leaves us in a state where we have to decide what to do," said Robert H. Patterson Jr., one of three Richmond lawyers hired to defend the plan.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union said that Warriner's decision leaves the state powerless to proceed in planning its House elections. "Our opinion is that the state is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act from taking any steps to put the 1981 plan in effect until it receives approval by the Justice Department," said attorney Frank R. Parker. "So there is currently no plan in effect."
That view was not shared by Joan S. Mahan, secretary to the State Board of Elections, who insisted that the judge's action leaves in place the 1981 redistricting plan. Mahan said she was not certain if the board legally was empowered to proceed with plans to hold House primaries on Sept. 8 under the new plan. "[The 1981 plan] is the law of the Commonwealth, but implementation of it is another matter," she said.
Most of the General Assembly's Democratic leadership have been pushing to keep the 1971 plan in place for the November elections, arguing that the legal snarl is too complicated to sort out before the scheduled primaries.
Officials in Fairfax County and Virginia Beach, which gained added representation as a result of the 1980 Census, have argued that such a strategy is designed to save the seats of incumbents in areas that are losing population, like Norfolk, at the expense of rapidly growing localities.