RICHMOND — The Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates has intervened in a federal lawsuit that alleges his chamber’s legislative districts were gerrymandered to dilute African-American influence.
Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and the House of Delegates will now be defending in court the map they drew in 2011 against a lawsuit filed by a group of Virginia citizens against the state Board of Elections and Department of Elections. Judge David J. Novak granted Howell’s motion Tuesday.
“The speaker has an obligation to ensure that the House is represented in court,” spokesman Matt Moran said. Any legal fees will be paid out of the House budget at Howell’s discretion.
The plaintiffs claim that districts already reliably electing the preferred representatives of African-American constituents were “illegally packed” with more black residents to diminish their voting power.
Delegates representing large numbers of black voters were told by Republicans that they could draw their own districts, according to the complaint, as long as the voting-age population was 55 percent African-American or more.
Howell’s attorneys deny all these allegations, saying the districts are “lawful” and “drawn in accordance with all requirements of the United States Constitution.”
While the House of Delegates is now a party to the case, House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said Howell is not representing his caucus. It’s the Republican majority, he said, who “are very concerned that the redistricting plan that they pushed is unconstitutional and will have to be redrawn.”
Moran said that on the contrary, the Speaker is “very confident that the districts will withstand any legal challenge.” The Speaker has emphasized that a majority of African-American delegates supported the map, and that it was approved by the U.S. Department of justice.
The lawsuit was filed late last year in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where last fall the state’s congressional map was struck down as unconstitutional for its concentration of African-American voters. Both lawsuits were filed by lawyers from the Washington law firm Perkins Coie.