RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Thursday urged Republican leaders in the House of Delegates to stop defending legislative districts that are under legal challenge and work with him on nonpartisan redistricting.
Republicans declined, accusing the governor of grandstanding one day after the U.S. Supreme Court told a lower court to reexamine Virginia’s redistricting efforts for signs of racial bias.
“I believe very strongly that this case is far from over and it’s premature to think about redrawing lines,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “I believe he’s doing it just for political gamesmanship.”
House Republicans drew the districts in 2011 but they were approved by a majority of the body — Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans went on to increase their majority in the House, and today have 66 seats to 34 held by Democrats.
In Wednesday’s 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court found that a lower court used the wrong standard in upholding 11 districts that were drawn to have a voting population that was 55 percent African American. The court did not rule on whether that constituted racial bias by concentrating black votes in a few districts, only that the lower court used the wrong legal approach in evaluating them.
In a 12th district that the high court did examine, it found that the lines were properly drawn.
Democrats and some legal experts said the ruling made it more probable that the lower court would overturn the districts, which would require new boundaries for those and the ones around them. The case seems unlikely to be resolved through the court system before this November’s elections for all 100 House seats, experts said. But if the districts were redrawn, there could be special elections as soon as next year.
On Thursday, McAuliffe sent a letter to Howell and House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) urging them to capitulate.
Noting that the Supreme Court last year struck down several Virginia congressional districts on the grounds that they were drawn to concentrate black votes, McAuliffe said the recent decision was heading down the same path.
“This ruling sets the stage for protracted litigation at taxpayer-expense and further delay that will cast a shadow over our upcoming legislative elections — unless we find a more productive path forward,” he wrote.
If the Republicans would agree to settle the lawsuit and empower the General Assembly to redraw the districts in a nonpartisan fashion, McAuliffe said he would call a special session of the legislature to get the job done before November elections.
Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who led the effort to draw the districts in 2011, said Thursday that he found the governor’s offer amusing given the years that Democrats controlled the legislature and drew districts to their own liking.
“For decades and decades, you never heard any push for nonpartisan redistricting until Republicans took over about 15 or 16 years ago, which I find real interesting,” he said. Jones, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, estimated that the public bill for defending the districts in court could be as much as $2 million and counting.
Howell pointed out that former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. is leading a new political organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, that is spending money to seek more favorable legislative districts.
In that light, he said, McAuliffe’s offer to work together is “hypocritical.”
The House Republican caucus has retained the law firm of BakerHostetler to represent it in defending the districts. Mark Braden, a lawyer for the firm, said he remains “quite confident in a victory” once the case goes back to federal district court.