RICHMOND — The speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates said Friday that he will not redraw congressional district lines while appeals are pending in a federal court case that deemed the map unconstitutional for diluting the influence of African American voters.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia last year ordered the Virginia General Assembly to remake the map by April 1, but congressional Republicans quickly appealed the ruling.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said initiating the redistricting process could create confusion if the Supreme Court reverses the lower court.
“The Virginia House of Delegates fully intends to exercise its legal right to attempt to remedy any legal flaw ultimately found by the courts with respect to the current congressional districts,” Howell said in a statement Friday. “However, we believe it would be inappropriate to act before the defendants have fully litigated this case. We are confident that a stay will be granted.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said Howell’s wait-and-see strategy will not change the reality that the map is illegal and must be redrawn.
“Governor McAuliffe is concerned that House Republicans will forgo Virginia’s opportunity to draw a sensible, nonpartisan map that complies with the court’s ruling in advance of the deadline the court clearly set. Running out the clock will not make the current unconstitutional map any more legal, but it will inject unnecessary legal uncertainty into what should be a straightforward process,” Brian Coy, McAuiffe’s spokesman, said in a statement.
Coy declined to comment on whether McAuliffe will propose a map of his own.
The court has yet to act on congressional Republicans’ request to move the deadline for redrawing the maps to Sept. 1.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) opposed the request and offered a counter-deadline of April 15. In his brief, Herring said that McAuliffe agreed that the deadline should be extended.
The April 15 date coincides with lawmakers’ scheduled return to Richmond to reconvene the legislative session.
If the date comes and goes with no action from the House, lawmakers could be forced to call a special session at a later date and return to Richmond at significant taxpayer expense, Herring said. Each day of a special session costs about $41,000, including personnel costs, per diem payments to lawmakers and other expenses, he said.
But Howell said the Supreme Court’s lack of action on the appeal suggests that “it is not clear there are any true legal flaws in the current map, and, if there are, their true nature is not known.”
The lower court’s decision focused on the state’s lone black-majority district — the 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from Richmond to Hampton Roads and is represented by Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D).
The decision declared Virginia’s congressional maps unconstitutional because they concentrate African American voters into a single district at the expense of their influence elsewhere.
The decision also delivered another victory for Democratic plaintiffs hoping to break up black-majority districts, which they say have been drawn by Republicans who have used the Voting Rights Act to dilute the influence of minority voters.
Shortly after the decision, the same law firm that challenged the congressional maps filed a federal suit challenging the boundaries of a dozen House of Delegates districts on similar grounds.
Both cases came on the heels of a 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
A similar case in Alabama is pending before the Supreme Court.