RICHMOND — The U.S. Supreme Court said Friday that it will review whether Virginia lawmakers improperly packed minority voters into one congressional district at the expense of their influence elsewhere in the state.
The court will consider whether earlier court decisions that ruled the districts invalid were correct. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia has twice invalidated the boundaries of a snake-like district that stretches from Richmond southeast to Norfolk — and ordered lawmakers to redraw the election map.
The Supreme Court’s action represents a small victory for Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), whose chambers would draw up the boundaries. Republicans had insisted on letting appeals play out before they abided by the order in case the high court intervened, as it did Friday.
“Today’s order from the Supreme Court validates the Speaker’s position that the defendants should have the opportunity to fully litigate this case before a new congressional map is drawn,” Howell spokesman Matt Moran said in a statement. “In August, the Speaker and Senator Norment asked the Eastern District Court to delay its timeline for this very reason. We will monitor the case as it moves forward.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) this summer convened a special session to adopt new maps, but an unrelated tussle over a judicial appointment abruptly ended the session before any progress could be made.
McAuliffe asked the federal district court to redraw the maps on its own — a process that has played out while the Supreme Court considered whether to take up the case.
Howell also recorded a win last month when a panel of three federal judges ruled on a similar case that targeted 12 House of Delegates districts. In that case, the court ruled the districts constitutional, and Democrats have filed an appeal of their own, potentially putting a second Virginia redistricting case before the Supreme Court.
The two Virginia lawsuits and similar ones around the country were brought by Marc E. Elias and funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust. Elias is general counsel to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and worked on the McAuliffe campaign.
Elias said he reads it as a “good sign” that the Supreme Court wants to consider the case, in part based on who has the authority to challenge lower-court rulings.
“It’s not a surprise in that the Supreme Court had to say something,” he said. “I think that the standing question is an interesting one so it doesn’t entirely surprise me that they took it up. But you never know what motivates the Supreme Court to take a case.”
But in saying it would consider the case, the court also raised an issue that might prevent it from reaching the merits of the panel’s decision: whether any of those appealing the ruling have legal standing to challenge it.
The court called for briefing on “whether appellants lack standing because none reside in or represent the only congressional district whose constitutionality is at issue in this case.”
Both Virginia lawsuits assert that Republicans packed racial minorities into certain districts to dilute their influence elsewhere. Democrats contend that the state’s lopsided congressional and House delegations — the GOP has eight of Virginia’s 11 congressional seats and a supermajority in the House — is evidence of illegal gerrymandering.
The court already is looking at Maryland’s redistricting plan, but for the more limited question of whether the lawsuit challenging the partisan nature of the redistricting should have gone to a three-judge panel instead of being dismissed by a single judge.
In Virginia, the congressional case has taken a circuitous route through the courts.
A federal three-judge panel ruled in favor of Elias in October 2014 and ordered the Virginia House of Delegates to redraw the congressional map. Attorney Michael A. Carvin appealed on behalf of Virginia’s Republican congressional delegation. While the appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided a similar redistricting case in Alabama and ordered the federal panel to reconsider the Virginia one.
The judges affirmed their earlier decision, and congressional Republicans again appealed. On Friday, they were successful in getting the high court to take a look.
Because of the special nature of redistricting challenges, appeals from three-judge panels go directly to the Supreme Court.
A third Virginia redistricting lawsuit was filed in September.
In that case, a group of Virginia residents challenged 11 legislative districts — including some in Northern Virginia — charging that they violated the state Constitution by enforcing election maps that too easily protect incumbents.
The plaintiffs argued that during the last round of redistricting, in 2011, the General Assembly drew the districts to give incumbents the best chance at holding on to their seats at the expense of geographical compactness, which the Constitution requires. If successful, the suit could scrap the maps and send vulnerable lawmakers scrambling to compete in newly drawn districts.
It is funded by OneVirginia2021, a nonprofit group pushing for nonpartisan redistricting. Howell has said the current process for drawing maps works fine, and he’s confident that the districts will withstand the challenge.
But the Senate, where Republicans have a one-vote edge, passed three nonpartisan redistricting bills in this year’s session only to see them die in the House.
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.