Supreme Court hears arguments over district lines for House of Delegates

The General Assembly debate over an abortion bill reached a boil this week.
The General Assembly debate over an abortion bill reached a boil this week.((Source: NBC12))
Published: Mar. 18, 2019 at 6:55 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The fate of the next election and power in Virginia’s House of Delegates is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys made oral arguments before the court today in an appeal of a lower court ruling that 11 House districts were racially gerrymandered and must be replaced with a new map. The outcome will impact where voters cast ballots and for which candidates they can vote.

The House GOP appealed the lower court ruling that the districts were unconstitutionally packed with black voters. If they win, districts go back to what they’ve been since 2011. If they lose, elections will follow 25 new districts drawn by a court-appointed expert.

What’s at stake? Power in the House of Delegates, currently held by Republicans by a slim 51 to 49 seat margin.

“It’s pretty clear there’s a big controversy about this because it’s the House of Delegates," NBC12 political anaylist Dr. Deirdre Condit said. "And it’s led by Speaker Cox, one of the delegates whose district is affected.”

The GOP says the new districts mean several Republican-held seats could flip to Democrats. Their lawyers argued the maps drawn in 2011 followed the Voting Rights Act, include 55 percent black voters and passed with bipartisan support.

But attorneys for Democratic voters, who brought the original suit, argued the drawing process applied the same racial mandate to “vastly” dissimilar districts, diluting black voting power in other districts.

“It shifts how the lines are drawn, and changes the impact on race but also changes the impact on party," Condit said.

During oral arguments, the liberal justices questioned the process that split some districts down the middle of some streets, while conservative justices said without the process used, black voters would have been prevented from having majorities.

Even before deciding whether the districts are drawn fairly, the justices must decide whether House Republicans, rather than a state attorney general, even have legal standing to bring the case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it could “invite complete discord over who represents a state,” while Justice Stephen Breyer questioned who else would bring the case if the Democratic executive branch doesn’t.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who opted not to appeal the case, issued a statement saying, “We should all be concerned about this race-based violation of Virginians’ right to vote and should work to fix it as soon as possible.”

The Supreme Court usually hands down rulings in May or June, but legal analysts say it’s possible it will rule earlier because the decision will impact Virginia’s June primary and November general election.

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