Supreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case

The Supreme Court has ruled against the Virginia House of Delegates in a racial gerrymandering case that represents a victory for Democrats in the state.

In the 5-4 ruling, the justices found that the House didn't have the standing to appeal a lower court ruling that found that the new district maps must be used ahead of statewide elections later this year. Those new maps are already in use.

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Democrats had claimed that previous districts were unlawful because they featured too many black voters, diminishing their power across the state and in other districts.

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Virginia Democrats had challenged the 11 districts for the state’s House of Delegates, which were drawn after the 2010 census, and each have a population with at least 55 percent black residents of voting age.

The Supreme Court has previously held that race can’t be the leading factor in the creation of state districts. The justices first took on the case in 2015, but sent it back down to a lower court for reconsideration.

But lawyers for the GOP-held House of Delegates claimed that by making sure that each legislative district had 55 percent black voters, the state was ensuring that their voting power wasn’t diminished.

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Virginia House Democrats celebrated the ruling in a statement Monday, calling it "a major win for voting rights and civil rights in our Commonwealth.”

"House Republicans have spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending racial gerrymandering in a protracted legal battle - a battle in which they lacked legal standing," House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Caucus Chairwoman Charniele Herring said in a joint statement.

"Finally, Virginians in the affected districts have the assurance that they will vote in constitutional districts in this year’s election."

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said in a statement that it is “unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts.”

“[B]ut the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts," he added.

The new districts upheld by the justices on Monday were already used in Virginia's state primaries this month. 

The case also marked a divide among Virginia officials, as the House pursued it further in court after the state attorney general said he wouldn't appeal the lower court ruling that threw out the districts.

"The House, we hold, lacks authority to displace Virginia's Attorney General as representative of the state," Ginsburg 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."

The House had argued that it was able to argue in court on behalf of the state's interests. But the majority found that the lawmakers hadn't identified a legal basis for them to do so, and that Virginia law gives the authority and responsibility to represent the state in court "exclusively" to the attorney general.

And Ginsburg's opinion also finds that the House wouldn't be injured by allowing the district maps to stand, as state law says that the entire Virginia General Assembly, not just the House, is elected from the districts that it draws.

However, Alito wrote in the dissenting opinion that "the new districting plan ordered by the lower court will harm the House in a very fundamental way."

And he pushed back against the claim that the districts won't necessarily hurt the House itself because members of the legislature frequently change.

"Really? It seems obvious that any group consisting of members who must work together to achieve the group's aims has a keen interest in the identity of its members, and it follows that the group also has a strong interest in how its members are selected," Alito wrote. "And what is more important to such a group than the content of its work?"

Alex Keena, an assistant professor of politics at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the ruling "may be the most important development in Virginia politics in a generation because it will impact the balance of partisan politics for the next decade and beyond.”

A surge of victories by Democrats in the state's 2017 elections captured national interest. Republicans eventually secured the majority in the House of Delegates through a drawing of names after only one vote separated the two candidates' vote totals.

Keena said that under the new maps now in use, Democrats could have a chance to take control of the entire state government, "which will give them the power to redraw state and congressional districts to their advantage."

Updated at 4:53 p.m.