By Travis Fain

A redistricting reform group filed a lawsuit Monday, arguing that 11 General Assembly districts violate the state constitution.

This makes two ongoing lawsuits against the state's legislative maps. A third lawsuit is forcing the current redraw of the state's 3rd Congressional District.

Previous suits were brought in federal court by a Democratic law firm making racial discrimination arguments based on the U.S. Constitution. This effort comes from OneVirginia2021, a nonpartisan group that focused on the state constitution's requirement that districts be compact, as opposed to the amoeba-like structures so often used to pull together constituencies likely to elect one party or the other.

The suit targets seats held by Republicans and Democrats. It includes five seats in the House, where Republicans drew the latest map, and six from the Senate, where the map was drawn under Democratic control. None of the districts reach into Hampton Roads, which has several districts questioned in the separate federal challenge of a dozen House seats.

OneVirginia2021 attorney Wyatt Durrette, a former Republican member of the House of Delegates, said this lawsuit will be the state's first "pure constitutional challenge" on assembly districts.

The effort has high-profile plaintiffs and financial backing. Robert S. Ukrop, from the Richmond-based grocery chain, is one of the plaintiffs. His brother, Jim, helped spearhead fundraising efforts for the suit, executive director Brian Cannon said Monday.

So did former Circuit City CEO Alan Wurtzel and Judy Ford Wason, the Republican operative and fundraiser, as well as namesake of Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy.

Former Virginia Secretary of Administration and Secretary of the Commonwealth Sandra Bowen is a plaintiff in this suit, as is Dianne Blais, of the Virginia League of Women Voters.

The suit argues that legislators ignored the state constitution's requirement that districts be compact, focusing instead on partisan ends. It describes one district as "an Italy-like boot-shaped district ... with a shoestring extension" and another "like a piece of a poorly designed puzzle."

"Neither the delegates, senators, nor their aides responsible for drawing the legislative districts in the adopted plans gave more than pro forma consideration to the issue of compactness," the lawsuit states. "They adopted no measure by which to test the compactness of the individual districts, nor any standard to bridle deviations as they displayed blatant partisanship in carving districts into Rorschach-like shapes."

The suit was filed Monday morning in Richmond Circuit Court. It will likely travel to the state Supreme Court before the case concludes, and while plaintiffs hope to bar future elections under the current maps, that won't include the coming November general elections. Every assembly seat is up this year.

The suit was filed against the State Board of Elections, but it's unclear how the defense will proceed. Interested elected officials -- Republican congressmen in the 3rd District case, Republican delegates in the federal House of Delegates case -- have intervened to take the lead in defending Virginia's maps against those lawsuits.

It falls to Attorney General Mark Herring to defend the latest suit for now, and his office said it was too early Monday to comment, or to say whether he'd hire outside counsel for the case, as he has in the federal litigation.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City, also said it was too soon to comment. Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin said the same, but added that his caucus has "consistently voted" to move Virginia to the sort of nonpartisan redistricting process OneVirginia2021 favors.

Caucus spokeswoman Kristina Hagen pointed to a pair of votes to back that, including a 2011 resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to implement independent redistricting. The measure passed the Senate easily, with Democrats voting for it unanimously, but the measure was killed as expected in the House, where members tabled it without a recorded vote.

About two months later both chambers passed the current House and Senate maps.

"The Senate Democrats brazenly passed the most gerrymandered hyperpartisan map in Virginia history and now have the gall to claim they support bipartisan redistricting?" Senate Republican Caucus spokesman Jeff Ryer asked Monday. "Preposterous."

Matt Moran, spokesman for Speaker of the House William Howell, said compactness was "one of the top priorities" when the House GOP developed its maps. He said the latest lawsuit is "another political lawsuit that will cost taxpayers."

Among other things, the plaintiffs in this suit have asked the court to award attorney costs. The federal court has already done this in the 3rd District case, and altogether taxpayers have been billed more than $1.5 million so far in the ongoing federal cases.

Cannon of OneVirginia2021 said both parties have abused redistricting power.

"Both maps are a gerrymander," he said. "When people realize Democrats gerrymandered the Senate and Republicans gerrymandered the House they realize this is a power problem, not a partisan problem."

(c)2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)