By Bill Bartel
A federal court ordered a congressional redistricting Thursday that reassigned millions of voters and changed the racial and political makeup of districts served by Reps. Bobby Scott and Randy Forbes.
Federal judges in Richmond ordered state officials to use the new boundaries for this fall's congressional elections.
While the changes were ordered in time for eligible candidates to file to run, the judges' order could be stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear opposition arguments from lawyers for the state's eight Republican members of Congress.
Unless the high court halts the order, the 3rd District, represented by Scott, will lose its black majority, shrinking from 59 percent black to 48 percent. At the same time, the white majority in Forbes' 4th District shrinks from 62 percent to 51 percent, giving black voters more clout.
The 3rd, which currently stretches from Newport News to Richmond, will become more centralized in Hampton Roads. It will take in all or part of the cities of Portsmouth, Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampton and Newport News and Isle of Wight County. Scott lives in Newport News.
The 4th District continues to represent Chesapeake, Forbes' hometown, but it loses part of Suffolk and Isle of Wight County. The cities of Richmond and Petersburg -- both with significant black populations -- had been part of Scott's district but will move to Forbes' district.
The redistricting makes some changes to the 2nd Congressional District, represented by Virginia Beach Republican Scott Rigell. The 2nd's population remains concentrated in Virginia Beach, but the district's territory has been expanded to include Williamsburg, York County, part of James City County and nearby communities. It also loses a chunk of its Newport News precincts.
The changes were ordered after the judges had twice ruled in a lawsuit that a 2012 redistricting by the Virginia General Assembly had unconstitutionally packed too many black voters in the 3rd District. The suit argued the action diminished the ability of black voters to elect candidates of their choice in surrounding districts.
Scott is the only black person elected to Congress from Virginia since the late 1800s.
When the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, failed to meet a court deadline earlier this year to draw new district boundaries, the judges took control. They hired a legal expert who drafted the new district lines.
Virginia's eight Republican members of Congress, including Forbes, had urged the judges to refrain from adopting the new map until after the Supreme Court considers their appeal . The three-judge panel denied their request, noting the delay could affect the use of the new maps in the fall election.
To wait to begin making the changes "constitutes irreparable harm" to those who have been wronged by the improper redistricting, the judges wrote.
Should the Supreme Court side later this year with the GOP legislators, there is still time to reverse course to use the existing map, the judges wrote.
Scott, who is serving his 12th term, said he welcomes the change.
"I am pleased that the court has imposed a new congressional map that fixes the unconstitutional racial gerrymander of Virginia's 3rd Congressional District," Scott said, noting that it is similar to changes he proposed as a state senator in 1991.
Forbes, who could not be reached for comment, said in an interview with Politico last week that he's concerned about the possible redistricting but predicted the Supreme Court "will fix it."
"I don't think, ultimately, that this case is going to impact my decision-making of where I go and what I do. I think that'll be pretty much locked in," Forbes said. "So do I spend a lot of time on it? No. Are we concerned about it? Yes, because it doesn't just impact me, it would impact redistricting across the whole South. Because this is new law, not old law, and it would have precedent that would be hugely detrimental, I think, across the South."
(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)