(Compiled from press and news reports)
OneVirginia2021, a non-profit, on Sept. 14 filed a lawsuit that alleged several of Virginia’s state House and Senate districts were unfairly gerrymandered for political reasons and should be redrawn.
The complaint, which was filed in Richmond Circuit Court, asks that 11 House and Senate districts be redrawn because they are not compact, which state law requires.
“The suit asks a state court to reject the twisted, misshapen districts as not in compliance with the Virginia Constitution’s requirement that election districts must be compact,” OneVirginia2021 noted in a recent press release.
Lead attorney Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. and OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon issued a statement, and later answered questions outside the courthouse. Copies of the lawsuit are available at the courthouse located at 454 N. 9th St., Richmond, Va.
This latest legal complaint comes on the heels of two previous lawsuits which alleged that minority voters were illegally packed into a congressional district and 12 state House districts when boundaries were redrawn in 2011, in an effort to dilute minority political strength – and to boost GOP fortunes – in neighboring ones.
The point is while the first two legal complaints focused on gerrymandering (the deliberate manipulation of legislative district boundaries to advantage or benefit a particular party or group, or to cause disadvantage or harm to an opposing party or group).
This latest complaint is separate. Specifically the new legal challenge focuses instead on the idea of compactness.
Defining the word compact on his website, Harvard Law Professor Justin Levitt said, “Almost as often as state law asks districts to follow political boundaries, it asks that districts be compact. Few states define precisely what compactness means, but a district in which people generally live near each other is usually more compact than one in which they do not.”
So this is the point. Virginia’s constitution says that “every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory.” But flip through Webster’s Dictionary. Contiguous means sharing a common border or touching. Compact means closely and neatly packed together; dense.
The state’s current House and Senate maps don’t meet that criteria, Cannon, the attorney and executive director of OneVirginia2021, said. “(The case) just involves, straight up, what our constitution says versus what … politicians put forward. They are devaluing compactness in favor of their own political gerrymandering.”
While several groups have advocated independent redistricting reforms in recent years, with a goal of implementing the changes before the next round of redistricting: 2021, following the next U.S. Census. State Republicans in recent news reports have defended the current boundaries as legal and appropriate.
For example, in recent news reports Republican leader Matt Moran, spokesman for Speaker of the House William Howell, said compactness was one of the General Assembly’s top criteria when these maps were drawn.
Republicans hold an 8-3 edge in Virginia’s delegation in the U.S. House. Four districts held by Republicans – Randy Forbes, Scott Rigell, Rob Wittman and Dave Brat – are most likely to be affected by changes in Scott’s district. Their districts surround his.
In any event in March 2015, The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a case involving the racial makeup of Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, and sent it back to a lower court for further consideration.
Lawmakers had until Sept. 1 to meet a court-ordered deadline for redrawing the boundaries of the 3rd District. A federal court found the district, which stretches from Richmond to Norfolk, to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and ordered state lawmakers to redraw it.
The 3rd District, which includes Portsmouth and part of Norfolk and stretches north to Richmond, is the only one of Virginia’s 11 House districts with an African-American majority. Its lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Newport News Democrat, is the only Black member of Congress elected in Virginia since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
Before the court-ordered deadline Gov. Terry McAuliffe called a special session in August, and said lawmakers need to go further than altering a single Congressional district, according to news reports.
“The only remedy that could survive court challenge is one that starts fresh and draws new maps based on the principles of equal representation, compact and contiguous districts, and the integrity of communities of interest,” McAuliffe said this past August in a statement.