Voting rights advocates celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday ruling on a racial gerrymandering case that, as Common Cause put it, “means Virginia voters are finally getting #fairmaps!”
“Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court is an important victory for African Americans in Virginia who have been forced since 2011 to vote in racially gerrymandered districts that unfairly diluted their power,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), said in a statement Monday.
“With a new, fair map in place, all Virginians will now—finally—have the opportunity this fall to elect a House of Delegates that actually represents the will of the people,” added Holder. An NDRC affiliate, the National Redistricting Foundation, supported voters in the case.
In a 5-4 decision (pdf), the justices dismissed a challenge to a 2018 ruling (pdf) by a panel of federal judges from the Eastern District of Virginia which determined that 11 state legislative districts drawn after the 2010 census were racially gerrymandered by Republicans and must be redrawn by a nonpartisan expert for the 2019 election.
Because of the Supreme Court’s move on Monday, the new districts—which were used for state primaries last week—will remain in effect, which could benefit Democratic candidates for Virginia legislative seats and ultimately change the power dynamics in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly.
One analysis found that the new districts “could shift six seats to the Democrats,” voting rights expert Ari Berman noted in a piece for Mother Jones Monday. “Democrats are currently only one seat away from taking control of the state house and senate, which would give them control over the redistricting process in 2021, when new lines are drawn.”
“All 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot this fall,” The Washington Post reported. “Democrats have been hoping that a wave of success in recent Virginia elections will propel them to control of the legislature for the first time since 1995.”
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The challenge to the lower court’s ruling was brought by the GOP-controlled Virginia House of Delegates, without backing from the Republican-held state senate or Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring. That, according to five justices, invalidated the case.
“The House, we hold, lacks authority to displace Virginia’s attorney general as representative of the state,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginberg wrote in the majority opinion. “We further hold that the House, as a single chamber of a bicameral legislature, has no standing to appeal the invalidation of the redistricting plan separately from the state of which it is a part.”
Ginsberg was joined by liberal justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor as well as Republican-appointed Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. Justice Stephen Breyer along with the remaining right-wing justices—Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and John Roberts—dissented.
The high court’s ruling was welcomed by Virginia House Democrats, who described it as “a major win for voting rights and civil rights in our commonwealth.”
Herring concurred, calling it a “big win for democracy in Virginia.”
“It’s unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts,” he added. “[B]ut the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts.”
While voting rights advocates and Democrats in Virginia praised the court’s ruling Monday, experts cautioned that because of the unusual split of justices and the majority’s explanation for its decision, the development does not necessarily foreshadow similar conclusions for upcoming rulings in other gerrymandering cases.
North Carolina attorney Aylett Colston explained in a Twitter thread that because the justices ruled on standing rather than the merits of the case, “it is hard to say” what this decision could mean for others, including one that focuses on her state. However, she said, the Monday ruling suggests the court could decide the North Carolina case “on a very specific fact-based technicality, thus side-stepping a ruling that would unequivocally declare a standard for unconstitutional partisan [gerrymandering] (which is my guess).”
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