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U.S. Supreme Court rejects Republican bid to delay redistricting in Virginia

People wait in line to attend the opening day of the new term of the Supreme Court on Oct. 1. (Aaron Bernstein/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to delay the process of drawing new districts for at least 11 Virginia House of Delegates seats, rejecting a request for a stay from state Republicans who are contesting the overall effort.

A panel of judges from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled last June that the districts had been racially gerrymandered to concentrate black voters and ordered a new map. Most of the affected districts are in the Hampton Roads and Richmond areas.

After the General Assembly failed to agree on a redistricting plan last fall, the judges appointed an outside expert to handle it. California professor Bernard Grofman submitted a 131-page report last month outlining options for new boundaries.

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Because redrawing the 11 targeted districts will affect those around them, as many as 26 districts could get new lines.

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in the Eastern District court.

In the meantime, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) appealed the redistricting to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.

That hearing will take place sometime in the spring, with the court first considering whether the House Republicans have standing to file the challenge.

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Cox had hoped to put the redistricting effort on hold while the appeal is being considered, but the high court denied that Tuesday without comment. The order did not note any dissents.

Control of Virginia’s House of Delegates hangs in the balance with the redistricting. All 100 seats in the House and all 40 seats in the state Senate are on the ballot this fall. Republicans hold a tight majority in each chamber, but Democrats have made huge gains in Virginia in recent years and hope to build on their momentum.

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Many of the districts under the court’s review are swing suburban districts where incumbent Republicans have seen their edge draining away. For instance, one is the Newport News district where the 2017 election ended in a tie, with Republican David Yancey taking the seat only after his name was drawn from a bowl by election officials.

“Obviously we hoped for a stay but the Court’s decision was not unexpected because the burden for a stay is very high,” Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox, said via email. “However, the Court will hear our argument on the merits this Spring and we are confident the map will be upheld.”

Democrats hailed the decision, calling it “a relief . . . Despite House Republicans’ constant attempts to delay the redistricting and defend their unconstitutional districts, Virginians will be able to vote in constitutional elections,” said Kathryn Gilley, spokeswoman for the House Democratic caucus.

Robert Barnes contributed to this report.