RICHMOND, Nov. 1 -- The state Supreme Court today upheld a Republican-drawn legislative redistricting plan that had sparked a bitter feud between the Virginia GOP and Democrats who complained that the plan was biased against black voters.
Virginia's highest court unanimously rejected Democratic claims that the GOP redistricting illegally packed African American voters into a small number of districts to weaken their voting strength. In March, a Circuit Court judge in Salem had agreed with the Democrats, sparking the appeal.
"We conclude that the complainants failed to carry the burden of proof that race was the predominant factor used by the General Assembly," the Supreme Court said in a 48-page ruling written by Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy, the appointee of a Democratic governor.
The seven-member Supreme Court noted that Republican lawmakers took race and politics into consideration when devising 140 new legislative districts, but disagreed sharply with Salem Circuit Court Judge Richard C. Pattisall's ruling that the GOP plan constituted "racial gerrymandering."
Today's ruling closes an intense and sometimes bizarre chapter in Virginia politics that began with Pattisall's startling ruling -- just a few weeks after new statewide leaders had assumed office -- and included allegations of Republican eavesdropping on telephone conference calls among Democrats planning their next legal moves in the case.
A federal inquiry into the eavesdropping is continuing.
The 2001 redistricting plan that followed the 2000 Census was a historic first for Virginia Republicans, and Pattisall's decision to nullify the GOP reapportionment touched off a tense political confrontation between Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner and Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.
The Warner-Kilgore tensions have largely abated, but bad feelings between legislative partisans persist and may not be healed by today's final decision.
The court concluded -- as Republicans had acknowledged -- that race was one of several factors considered by lawmakers in drawing new electoral maps that had to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
Justice Leroy R. Hassell, the court's only black member and its new chief justice, said in a concurring opinion that the Democratic plaintiffs' "failure to establish that the General Assembly relied predominantly upon race rather than basic political considerations . . . is fatal to the plaintiffs' case."
"It is no surprise to anyone that this redistricting, like most, is highly political," Hassell wrote. "In Virginia there is a high correlation between race and politics."
Kilgore, who had sided with the GOP majorities that control both houses of the Virginia legislature, hailed today's ruling, saying at a news conference: "I'm glad it's over. It's time to move on. It removes this cloud from the House and Senate districts."
"These districts are going to be around for some time, and we're free to look to 2003 with certainty," Kilgore said.
Next year, candidates for all 100 House of Delegates seats and the 40-member state Senate will be running in the newly configured legislative districts.
Many were drawn to protect Republican incumbents and others to make it easier for GOP candidates, especially in Northern Virginia and other suburban areas.
"The court recognized that you cannot and you will not remove politics from redistricting decisions," Kilgore said. "You're not going to remove the issue of incumbent protection."
"Politics and race are so intertwined in Virginia," Kilgore said. "As Justice Hassell noted, it really is a fact of political life in Virginia."
Democrats expressed sometimes bitter disappointment at the ruling.
Warner press secretary Ellen Qualls said, "The governor is obviously disappointed in the ruling, but obviously respects the position of the court."
Ronald A. Klain, a Washington-based lawyer who advised Virginia Democrats on the redistricting case, said: "The litigation is over. It's obviously very disappointing . . . a defeat."
"The fact that the Republicans won in court doesn't mean those districts are fair or that those districts are right," Klain added. "It just means that the courts aren't going to strike them down."
Democratic leaders in the legislature, including state Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and state Sens. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax) and Mary Margaret Whipple (Arlington), said in a joint statement that the court did "not address the issues of fairness or common sense."
"We believe that this redistricting plan is unjust, discriminatory and unfair to the citizens of Virginia," the Democrats said. "We intend to work toward winning those seats, despite the unfair and unjust burdens imposed by the redistricting plan."