High court lets Virginia voting go ahead under redrawn map

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Virginians will elect members of the House of Delegates this year using a map seen as favorable to Democrats as a result of a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

US Supreme Court building, Photo Date: Undated / Photo: Architect of the Capitol / (MGN)

The political boundaries are important because Republicans currently control the House by a slim majority. Only four states are having legislative elections this year. Virginia is the only one where Democrats have a chance of flipping control of the House and Senate.

The high court's 5-4 decision was perhaps telegraphed by the fact that the justices previously allowed election planning to go forward with the new map. Virginia held its primary last week, and the November general election will be the last time the state uses this map because legislative districts will need to be redrawn to account for results from the 2020 census.

The justices let stand a lower court decision putting the new map in place, saying the Republican-controlled state House did not have a right to represent the state's interests in an appeal to the Supreme Court. The state could have decided to bring the case but did not, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

"One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process," she wrote. The four justices joining her were Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, a lineup that included conservatives and liberals. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh.

The case stemmed from a map drawn by Republican lawmakers in 2011, after the last census, and used in the four elections since. Democratic voters sued in 2014, accusing Republicans of packing black voters into certain districts to make surrounding ones whiter and more Republican.

A lower court ruled 2-1 last year that the previous map drawn by lawmakers improperly factored race into drawing 11 of the 100 House districts. After lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on a redistricting plan, the lower court chose a new map from a series of proposals submitted by a special master.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, called the ruling 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 said in a statement.

The lawsuit challenging the original House lines was backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The group targets elections for governors and state legislators, court cases or ballot initiative to give Democrats more control during the next round of congressional redistricting after the 2020 Census.

"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," Holder said in a statement.

House Republicans said they are disappointed by the ruling and criticized the "shadowy organization funded by out-of-state interests" that funded the lawsuit. But Republicans said they still expect to maintain their majority based on their track record of "common sense" leadership.

"Today's ruling from SCOTUS will make victory in November even sweeter," the House GOP caucus tweeted, adding in a statement: "We are confident that voters will opt for the leadership and results we have delivered over chaos, embarrassment, and unchecked Democratic control of state government."

The case is Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, 18-281.

Below are statements issued by top Virginia politicians on the decision:

ATTORNEY GENERAL MARK HERRING
The Court agreed with Attorney General Herring that “the House lacks standing, either to represent the State’s interests or in its own right” and dismissed House Republicans attempt to protect racially gerrymandered districts:

“This is 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, but the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts. I’m really proud of the work my team and I did to protect the new, constitutional districts, and to protect the voting rights of all Virginians.”

Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “In short, the State of Virginia would rather stop than fight on. One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process.”

In June 2018, a three-judge panel found that eleven House of Delegates districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. In July 2018, Attorney General Herring announced that the Commonwealth of Virginia would not appeal the decision, citing the seriousness of the constitutional violation, the low likelihood of success, and the considerable time and more than $4.5 million in taxpayer money spent by House Republicans to defend racially gerrymandered districts.

GOVERNOR RALPH NORTHAM
Today the United States Supreme Court dismissed the Virginia House of Delegates’ appeal in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia House of Delegates lacked standing in the case, either to represent the State’s interests or in its own right.

The ruling upholds Virginia’s newly-implemented electoral map, which was drawn by an impartial, court-appointed Special Major after federal courts found a 2011 House of Delegates’ map had been racially gerrymandered.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a victory for democracy and voting rights in our Commonwealth,” said Governor Ralph Northam. “When we corrected racially gerrymandered districts earlier this year, we righted a wrong—as I have always said, voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around. I am pleased that this fall, every Virginian, no matter who they are or where they live, will cast their ballots in fair and constitutional districts.”

HOUSE SPEAKER KIRK COX
“Naturally, we are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to reject our standing to appeal this case, which could have wholly been prevented had the Attorney General not once again declined to do his job and defend the law of the Commonwealth.

“The Court’s opinion today ends a disappointing saga of orchestrated attacks against the constitutionally-enacted redistricting plan. A shadowy organization funded by out-of-state interests has cost the taxpayers millions to overturn a legislative map that passed in 2011 that passed with an overwhelming majority.

“Unfortunately, the Court’s decision to not decide the merits of this case leaves a number of unanswered questions just two years before the next redistricting cycle. This could have been prevented if Attorney General Herring would have defended the law of the Commonwealth and allowed the Court to provide an opinion on the merits of this case.

“Regardless of this decision, we are prepared to defend and grow our majority in the House of Delegates. We will run on our record, which includes cutting taxes for the middle-class, freezing college tuition, and standing up for survivors of domestic assault, and the proven results we have delivered over the last two decades. We protected our AAA bond rating through the great recession, set aside over $1.5 billion in reserve funds, raised teacher pay, and made Virginia one of the best states for business. We have recruited a diverse slate of candidates that reflect the communities they seek to serve, including eight women and two African Americans. We are confident that voters will opt for the leadership and results we have delivered over chaos, embarrassment, and unchecked Democratic control of state government.”

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Associated Press writer Alan Suderman contributed from Richmond, Virginia.