RICHMOND — Republican members of Congress from Virginia are considering whether to appeal Tuesday’s decision by a panel of judges that declared the state’s congressional maps unconstitutional.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that the Virginia General Assembly must draw new congressional maps by mid-April because, according to the 102-page opinion, the current maps concentrate African American voters into a single district at the expense of their influence elsewhere.
But an appeal would put the brakes on the frenzied political wrangling that has begun as the state’s political class has pondered the partisan implications of new maps. An appeal also would leave open the possibility that the status quo could be maintained.
Several of the state’s Republican congressmen held a conference call with their attorneys Wednesday, but they have not made a final decision whether to appeal. Republicans say privately that an appeal is likely because of the importance of the case.
“The Republicans need to appeal this case so this will not just be precedent in Virginia but across the country,” said Tom Davis, a Republican who once represented Northern Virginia’s 11th District in Congress.
The seven Republican members (there are three Democrats) have about a month to decide whether to file a notice of appeal in federal court. That would trigger a round of briefs to the Supreme Court, which could affirm the lower court’s decision or agree to hear the case, which would set off another round of briefs and oral arguments. Arguments in a similar case from Alabama are set for Nov. 12.
The process is more uncertain now than it might have been under former House majority leader Eric Cantor, who had the power and fundraising muscle to dominate the redistricting process and to pay for legal maneuvers.
Lawyers have told the state’s Republican congressmen that if they move quickly, the case could be heard at the same time as the Alabama one.
The delegation was granted the right to intervene in the case, giving members as a group the right to appeal just like the other defendant, the state Board of Elections, which is represented by the attorney general’s office.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said districts for U.S. Rep. Randy J. Forbes and to a lesser extent U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell are most in danger of changing. Some have speculated that Dave Brat, the front-runner in the race for Cantor’s old seat, could also be on the losing end, if only because he has fewer relationships in the House and General Assembly than incumbents.
At issue is the number of African American voters in the majority-black 3rd Congressional District, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. A federal panel of judges ruled that lawmakers improperly packed voters into Scott’s district to reduce their influence elsewhere.
Kidd said a fairly simple fix would entail moving about 45,000 African American voters from Petersburg, Norfolk and Hampton out of Scott’s district and into Forbes’s and perhaps Rigell’s districts. That could give Forbes more competition in his next reelection, however.
“But in politics, the simplest thing is often the thing that doesn’t happen,” Kidd said.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) have an incentive to come up with map upon which both can agree. If they don’t, the courts will take over and could draw up a plan neither party likes.
“Obviously, Medicaid expansion is an example of them not being able to do something, but the budget shortfall is an example of them being able to work together,” Kidd said.
Tuesday’s decision also will expedite an independent review of the process.
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R) and former representative Rick Boucher (D) said Wednesday that they will add bipartisan redistricting to the agenda for the first meeting of a new Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government, created by McAuliffe. They initially didn’t plan to take up the complicated issue until after the General Assembly’s 2015 session.
“I think it’s very important that we move away from the partisan redistricting process that tends to produce districts that have a weight majority for one party or another,” Boucher said.
Bolling took it one step further and called on McAuliffe, the House of Delegates and the state Senate to create another commission to redraw the maps in a nonpartisan manner. He suggested that each could appoint three members.
“The truth is the congressional delegation should have no influence over the process,” Bolling said. “The responsibility for this process rests with the General Assembly. While the congressmen should have input, they should not be allowed to drive this process. It should be up to the General Assembly and the governor.”
McAuliffe is in a particularly strong position on the issue because he can veto any maps sent to him by lawmakers.
His spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor’s office is open to proposals on how to make the process more fair.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.