House District in Va. Ordered Redrawn
By Ellen Nakashima
A panel of federal judges scrapped Virginia's only majority-black congressional district today, ruling it unconstitutional because race was the primary factor in deciding where to draw its boundaries.
The judges ordered state officials to redraw the state's 3rd District, which was crafted in 1991 and resulted in the election of Virginia's first black U.S. representative in more than a century, Democrat Robert C. Scott, of Newport News.
The ruling follows similar court decisions dissolving eight mainly black and Hispanic congressional districts in five other states since 1993. It could dramatically alter Virginia's political map and revive a racial dispute that polarized state government six years ago when the 3rd District was created to satisfy the Voting Rights Act.
"The evidence, in our view, is overwhelming that the creation of a safe black district predominated in the drawing of the boundaries," the special panel of two U.S. District Court judges and one federal appeals court judge said in its unanimous ruling.
In drawing the district which the panel noted has been described as a "grasping claw" or a "squashed salamander" the state "subordinated traditional districting principles, such as compactness, communities of interest, and respect for cities and counties, to accomplish its goal," the judges said.
Scott said he was disappointed but hoped that the General Assembly and Gov. George Allen can agree on a plan that makes "minor revisions" to the district and that would pass U.S. Justice Department muster. "Any time the redistricting process is taking place, you are concerned," he said, adding that he would run for a third term in 1998 no matter how the boundaries are drawn.
The panel's decision comes in one of several lawsuits made possible by a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that allowed white voters to challenge "majority minority" congressional districts as violations of the Constitution's equal protection guarantee.
Leaders of black civil rights organizations said they were disappointed but not surprised by the ruling.
"This is part of a nationwide regression in terms of majority African districts," said Salim Khalfani, a spokesman for the Virginia branch of the NAACP. "It's another dangerous precedent and part of an effort to take us out of the political process. We see this as a continuing pattern to erode our participation in the political process."
But in last November's elections, seven black and Hispanic incumbents whose congressional districts were dissolved by the courts won reelection in their new districts. One incumbent didn't seek reelection.
Those victories have prompted some to argue that racially based districts aren't needed because minority candidates can win when most of their constituents are white.
But civil rights advocates say that incumbency, rather than a new racial tolerance, was the key to the successes. Moreover, some of the redrawn districts still had voting majorities of blacks and Hispanics, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The real issue is what [state officials] draw in the way of a remedy," McDonald said. If the new district follows so-called traditional redistricting principles but still has a majority of black residents, "then that is not a setback," he said. "An opinion of this sort is widely perceived as condemning majority-black districts per se," he added. "But that's clearly not what the courts have said."
Allen (R) said he was consulting with Attorney General James S. Gilmore III (R) to see if taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals is a "viable option."
The state Constitution requires that districts be compact and contiguous. But the 3rd District, where 62 percent of those old enough to vote are black, meanders 225 miles in Tidewater and central Virginia, snaking into parts of Richmond, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth and Suffolk.
The legislature crafted it to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which is intended, in part, to prevent states from designing districts that dilute black voting strength and prevent African Americans from being elected.
Virginia House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) said U.S. Justice Department civil rights lawyers virtually required state lawmakers to gerrymander the 3rd District by rejecting all other proposals.
"Each time we did it, they rejected it, and they forced us to make a black district and to gerrymander to do so," Moss said. "It was like playing a game as a child: 'You're getting warmer; you're getting warmer; you're there.' "
Moss said tonight that the legislature would not take up the question during the current session, which adjourns Feb. 22. He said it was premature to decide whether a special session would be called.
Republican Party officials said the ruling vindicated their position that the 1991 redistricting that created Scott's district was wrong.
GOP leaders, including 3rd District Chairman Donald Moon, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, said they don't know whether redrawing the districts in the Tidewater region would help or hurt Republicans. They hold seats in two of the four districts surrounding Scott's, and their district boundaries are subject to change as well.
State GOP Executive Director Chris LaCivita said he expects a bruising battle over the new plan, given that the House of Delegates is narrowly controlled by Democrats, 53 to 46, and that the 40-member Senate is evenly split between the parties.
He still expresses bitterness over the 1991 plan, which redistricted Allen, then a congressman in the 7th District, out of a seat.
"I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the House Democrats in Virginia didn't try to come up with some other way to shaft Republican members of Congress," LaCivita said. "If they want a fight on redistricting, we'll give them one."
Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said redistricting poses a dilemma.
On one hand, you want districts assuring a "reasonable opportunity" for blacks to elected, he said.
On the other, he said, "you can run the risk of bringing about an overall decrease in minority influence because you pack minorities in one district."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company