A three-judge federal court has added another decision to the already too long list of ignominious defeats in Virginia's litigation history. This time the House of Delegates, in a sanguine mood to do its own thing, passed a bill that violated the constitutional principle of one person/one vote.
This principle, compelled by both the Virginia and federal constitutions, was first articulated by the Supreme Court more than 17 years ago. In the cases that followed, the courts established reasonably clear criteria and standards and indicated the permissible deviations that would be tolerated. Generally, it was made clear that a maximum total deviation of 16 percent from one person/one vote was about as far as the principle could be stretched. Virginia's bill contained a deviation of approximately 25 percent. Why then was such an obviously unconstitutional bill passed?
The answer is not totally clear to this House member. However, my best analysis is that most delegates agreed to support a bill that achieved the redistricting goal they sought for their own area, ignoring the consequences of the expected litigation. Once a large minority had a bill in which their own districts were satisfactory, they marched to gether in unison like lemmings into disaster. And, disaster it will be!
Under Virginia's election laws, the members of the House are elected to a two-year term in odd-numbered years. The court's ruling will allow an election to be held this Nov. 3, but requires that the House again redistrict itself by Feb. 1, 1982, and hold a new election in November 1982. Unless Virginia law is changed, there will then be another House election in November 1983 before we can get back on the biennial election track.
Three elections in three years abuses the citizens, the incumbents, the challengers and the budgets of the local communities that pay for the election process. Furthermore, some decent legislators will be discouraged by the prospect of three straight years of campaigning and will choose not to run, thus making it more attractive for fringe-group candidates to run. Those who do choose to run will find that they cannot concentrate on their legislative duties, since they will always have to be campaigning. If they concentrate on their legislative business and neglect the campaign, they will become easy prey for challengers. Some legislators who worked hard for years to get seniority on certain committees will certainly lose in one of the three elections and, to the detriment of the Commonwealth, their great expertise will probably be lost forever. There will also be a tendency for wealthier persons to run, since citizens of more modest means will not be able to afford the dual cost of multiple cam paigns and significant time away from their occupations or professions. This may result in an aristocratic, elitist legislature even further removed from the people than it is now perceived to be.
However, one opportunity still exists for the House to redeem itself, although it will require swift, disciplined and bold action in the best traditions of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. The House Privileges and Elections Committee should meet at once to hammer out a new redistricting bill that meets all of the requirements of the law and the court's decision. The governor should also submit legislation that meets all of the legal requirements. The General Assembly will have to convene within the next several days and should pass the necessary special resolutions to allow for expedited handling of this emergency situation. The Justice Department would have to cooperate by swiftly assessing and approving the new proposal. If there were no snags (admittedly an optimistic "if"), we could hold elections on Nov. 3 (or perhaps within several weeks of that date) and then go to the court and ask them to modify their order so as to not require another election in 1982. While I have no illusions about the "long-shot" nature of this suggestion, I make it for two reasons. First, it might just work; second, consideration of it might result in a workable, more innovative plan.
From the comments I have heard, it is obvious that the reputation of the legislature has been tarnished by its short-sighted action. If we are able to accomplish the above plan, it will have the additional salutary effect of restoring public confidence and esteem in the legislature.