Supreme Court: Virginia House Lacks Authority to Defend Gerrymandering
The ruling, which united an unusual coalition of justices, could boost Democrats' chances in November.
Last Updated June 18, 2019 at 10:58 a.m. ET
- The Supreme Court ruled that "the state did not designate the House to represent its interests" in this racial gerrymandering case.
- The ruling effectively upholds new voting maps that are considered more favorable to Democrats.
- The court is expected to issue rulings in partisan gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina by the end of next week.
Virginia Democrats’ hopes of taking over control of the state House in November received a boost Monday, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on redistricting.
Last year, a federal district court ruled that 11 districts in the House map drawn in 2011 amounted to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, packing African-Americans into a limited number of districts and making neighboring districts whiter and more Republican.
The court itself drew up a new map, which includes several districts considered more favorable to Democrats than the old map. In elections held using the old map in 2017, Democrats gained 15 seats, falling one seat short of achieving a tie and two seats short of winning the majority. In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried 51 of the 100 House districts under the old map; under the new map, she would have carried 56.
The district court’s decision was appealed by the House itself but not by the state attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring. In a narrow ruling, a 5-4 majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the House, as a single legislative chamber, lacked standing to challenge the decision on behalf of the commonwealth.
“The state itself had standing to press this appeal … and could have designated agents to do so,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. “However, the state did not designate the House to represent its interests here. Under Virginia law, authority and responsibility for representing the state’s interests in civil litigation rest exclusively with the state’s attorney general.”
An unusual coalition of justices -- three appointed by Democratic presidents (Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) and two appointed by Republicans (Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas) -- sided with the majority.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing in dissent, argued that the court had erred in not granting the House standing for its appeal, contending that the House itself is an injured party.
“It is clear, in my judgment, that the new districting plan ordered by the lower court will harm the House in a very fundamental way,” he wrote.
But Ginsburg noted that the district court’s decision did not strip away primary authority for redistricting from the legislature and that the new map does not change the day-to-day functioning of the House. In effect, she said, delegates do not suffer harm simply by having to run under the new map drawn by the court.
“It is a representative body composed of members chosen by the people,” Ginsburg wrote. “Changes to its membership brought about by the voting public thus inflict no cognizable injury on the House.”
The House is still challenging the new map drawn by the district court, arguing that it constitutes a racial gerrymander itself. Redistricting experts don’t expect that case to get very far.
Virginia Republicans are also not conceding that their majority is doomed due to the district court’s map, which was used in legislative primaries held last week.
“Regardless of this decision, we are prepared to defend and grow our majority in the House of Delegates,” Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox said 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 state Senate, where Republicans have a 21-19 majority, is also up for grabs this fall.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue rulings in partisan gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina by the time the court finishes its term next week.