By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
For the second time in eight months, a federal court has declared a 2012 redistricting plan as unconstitutional because the General Assembly packed Black voters into the Third Congressional District to make adjacent ones safe for conservative White Republicans.
A three judge court voted 2-1 to reorder the Virginia General Assembly to draw new boundaries by Sept. 1 to correct the flawed redistricting plan. The court first struck down the plan in October, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered reconsideration in light of a ruling in an Alabama redistricting case.
The judges said race was the predominant factor – not just one of many considerations – in crafting the plan, thus violating the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“The legislative record here is replete with statements indicating that race was the legislature’s paramount concern,” Judge Allyson Duncan of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the majority opinion.
The Virginia case is part of a larger effort by Democrats to challenge Congressional districts throughout the country.
Strong Republican state-level gains in the 2010 election cycle gave the GOP increased power during once-in-a-decade Congressional redistricting.
A group of Black Democratic party activists filed the suit, as part of a national effort to challenge the compositions of many majority white and Republican Districts across the country, especially in the South, where the GOP controls the redistricting process in most states.
Republicans have drawn enough U.S. Congressional districts to secure a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for years to come. There are few White Democrats in the U.S. House from the South.
Most of the Democrats from southern states are African-Americans or Hispanic in majority Black Congressional districts devised by Republicans to secure their majority in those states
The law suit focused on the 3rd Congressional District, which has had a Black majority since 1991. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the state’s only Black congressman, has represented the district since 1993 and has never faced a serious challenge. Scott, who was unopposed in last November’s election, is one of only three Democrats in Virginia’s 11-member congressional delegation.
“Today’s decision by the U.S. District Court is consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama,” said Scott in a statement released hours after the court’s decision. “While I was not involved in this lawsuit, I was a proponent of the redistricting plan sponsored by State Senator Mamie Locke in 2011, which made all Congressional districts in the Commonwealth more compact and contiguous. I hope and expect the General Assembly will more equitably and appropriately balance the influence of all Virginia’s voters, as mandated by this decision, when they redraw the
Third Congressional District and adjacent Congressional districts by the September 1st deadline.”
Democrats have alleged in lawsuits in other states, including North Carolina, Florida and Alabama, that Republicans have drawn racially gerrymandered districts.
Marc Elias, an attorney for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust who represented the Virginia plaintiffs, said he is pleased with Friday’s ruling and would oppose any efforts by Republicans to delay the Sept. 1. deadline for drawing new districts.
Elias also represents several prominent Virginia politicians and is general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Republican Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell said the “defendants should have the opportunity to fully litigate this case. In light of today’s decision, we are evaluating the next steps.”
A lawyer for the Republican congressmen who are defendants in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The plan approved by the Republican-controlled legislature increased the 3rd District’s Black voting-age population from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent. The result was an oddly shaped district composed of “a disparate chain of communities, predominantly African-American, loosely connected by the James River,” Judge Duncan wrote.