Members of a three-judge federal panel looked skeptically at Virginia's newly revised House redistricting plan today, hinting they might reject it and force a postponement of the scheduled November legislative elections.
"Wouldn't it be better to delay the election than seat an unconstitutional legislature?" asked District Judge Glenn Williams as he heard eight groups outline their arguments against the plan. It was approved by the Department of Justice Wednesday evening, a day after the General Assembly hurriedly amended it to overcome the department's objection that an earlier version that the Reagan administration said diluted black voter strength in the state.
Today the judges, sitting just a block from the State Capitol, heard arguments that the new plan still dilutes the influence of black voters and that population differences among various legislative districts violate equal representation guarantees of the Constitution. But before the judges considered testimony on those issues they tried to decide if the Justice Department had, in fact, removed all its objections to the plan.
"As I interpret the Justice Department telegram on the question they are saying we can go swimming if we don't go near the water," said District Judge D. Dortch Warriner. The telegram by Assistant Attorney General Bradford Reynolds ostensibly removed the department's objections, but then cautioned "the attorney general reserves the right to reexamine this submission if additional information that would otherwise require an objection comes to his attention during the remainder of the 60-day review period."
Because all of Virginia's 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election in November, today's deliberations were conducted at race horse speed. The judges asked each of the plaintiffs what effect their actions might have on elections.
"There is nothing magic about November," said Del. Raymond Robrecht, a Republican from Roanoke, who suggested that elections be postponed until next year but before the scheduled Jan. 13 start of the next legislative session. Other lawyers today urged delaying the elections for a full year.
Fairfax County Attorney David T. Stitt opposed any election delay. Under the new plan, Fairfax will gain two delegates and have 12 House members, the largest delegates of any jurisdiction in the state "Getting the 12 delegates really doesn't do us any good if we don't have elections this fall," Stitt said.
Appeals Court Judge John D. Butzner Jr. the senior member of the panel, said he was inclined to reach a quick decision that would allow current election timetable to remain in place. Primaries for many of the House seats are set for Sept. 8 and many politicians are actively campaigning for seats under the new plan.
"Nobody wants to create chaos in the elections of the General Assembly," said Butzner at the start of testimony today.
The redistricting plan was attacked by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP today for splitting large black populations among many largely white legislative districts. The lawyers proposed creating 100 single-member districts, a step which might increase the number of black delegates in the legislature. But the judges did not seem receptive to the arguments.
"Under your plan, don't you do just exactly the reverse of what you're accusing the other side of doing?" asked Judge Williams. "Aren't you gerrymandering to create black districts?"
But the judges later turned a critical eye toward lawyers defending the plan. "You were far more successful in meeting the problem of incumbency guidelines, of protecting your buddy, than you were in meeting the problem of one man one vote weren't you?" asked Judge Warriner.
When one attorney for the state asked the court not to halt the scheduled elections, Warriner interrupted sharply. "The General Assembly met; twice it could have adopted a plan that was clearly constitutional and it didn't."
The judges ended the hearing, saying only that they would issue a ruling promptly.