RICHMOND — A Richmond Circuit Court judge has ruled against a group that argued 11 of Virginia’s legislative districts are so sprawling that they do not meet the constitutional requirement for compactness.
The ruling is a setback for efforts to claim that Virginia’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans and disenfranchise black voters, who tend to vote Democratic, but the matter is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
A separate federal case involving some of the same districts, plus others, is moving ahead after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the matter back to a lower court this year.
Republican leaders, who control both houses of the General Assembly, said Friday’s Circuit Court ruling vindicated the 2011 redistricting, which also was approved by many Democrats.
“Virginia has a fair and open redistricting process that involves multiple hearings and extensive input from the public,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in an email.
Democrats controlled the state Senate at the time of that redistricting but now are a 19-to-21 minority in that chamber. Republicans have built on their majority in the House of Delegates since the lines were redrawn, for a commanding 66-to-34 majority.
All 100 House seats are up for election this year, but experts doubt that they will be affected by the legal challenges.
Wyatt Durrette, an attorney for OneVirginia 2021, the advocacy group that brought the most recent suit, said an appeal of Circuit Judge W. Reilly Marchant’s ruling is likely. Durrette cited the judge’s favorable language about the method the group used to argue that the districts are not compact. In hearings in March, the group presented expert witness Michael McDonald, a political science professor from the University of Florida who had devised a new test for compactness. McDonald said the 11 challenged districts were at least 50 percent less compact than they should have been.
“While that test is novel and untested in this context, the Court does find that Dr. McDonald’s testimony and accompanying conclusions do merit serious consideration,” Marchant wrote in his ruling.
But the judge ruled that raising questions was not enough to overturn the General Assembly’s actions. The standard set by the state Supreme Court, he said, is that “if the evidence offered by both sides of the case would lead reasonable and objective persons to reach different conclusions, then the legislative determination is ‘fairly debatable’ and must be upheld.”