By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
With the State Senate’s abrupt adjourning of the first day of a special legislative session, the General Assembly found itself disabled in complying with a court order to redraw the state’s Congressional districts because they violated the voting rights of Black voters.
Now the federal court which issued that order last June may be tasked with redrawing the boundaries of some or all of the state’s 11 Congressional District boundaries.
To comply with the Voting Rights Act, (VRA) the 3rd Congressional District was created in the early 1990s to give Blacks a representative in the U.S. Congress. Congressman Robert Scott has been in that seat for two decades.
A suit was filed last year by a group of Black Democrats challenging the state’s 2010 redistricting plan by the GOP-led General Assembly.
Republicans increased the number of Black voters in the 3rd District by extracting them from adjacent ones and making the adjacent districts more White and Republican.
Now that only the Republican House is in session, supporters of the suit believe the court may do a better job of complying with its wishes.
They are hoping that the jurists may reduce the number of Blacks in the 3rd District and create another one which could be used to elect an African-American representative or a Democrat sympathetic to Black political interest.
But there is another nasty political undercurrent flowing in Richmond, exemplifying the rift between the Democrats and Republicans lawmakers.
When the GOP-controlled Senate adjourned, the Republican-controlled House remained in session, not to take up the redistricting issue, but to sidetrack the Governor’s effort to fill a seat on the State Supreme Court.
House Republicans say when the Democrats adjourned the Senate, it was a political tactic to keep them from challenging Governor Terry McAuliffe’s reappoint of interim state Supreme Court Justice Jane
Marum Roush, a former Fairfax County Circuit Court judge.
The governor said he used his power to appoint jurists while the General Assembly was out of session July 27. But the governor cannot reappoint the interim judge on September 16, if the General Assembly, which has the Constitutional power to screen and appoint state jurists, is in session.
Democrats adjourned the Senate Sine Die “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing.”
Senate Democrats with the help of Republican State Senate John Watkins of Powhatan, and Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, who broke a 20-20 tie, adjourned the Senate.
Democrats say the General Assembly cannot operate and act on legislation including redistricting or judicial appointments with only one body in session. Both sides have been consulting legal and legislative experts to determine if they have legal and political standing to pursue their aims.
Republicans claim Democrats violated the state Constitution because it did not alert the House of its intentions to adjourn.
Further GOP leaders say the Governor did not consult them on his judicial appointment.
To counter the Governor’s move, and reclaim their legislative prerogative to appoint judges, Republicans introduced their own nominee for the state’s high court, Court of Appeals Judge Rossie D. Alston, Jr., an African-American.
Democratic State Delegate Lionell Spruill, of Chesapeake, said the GOP’s introduction of Black conservative Judge Alston, was a ploy devised to “divide and conquer” the alliance between the Black Caucus and the Governor.
“They (the GOP) hoped we would cry foul about the Governor denying a Black man a seat on the state’s supreme court,” said Spruill. “They also hoped we would stand against the Senate’s adjourning which was a good strategy to support the governor’s choice of Judge Rouse.”
Spruill and other members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) were convinced Republican lawmakers “had no intention” of complying with the federal court’s order to convene and redraw the congressional district by September 1.
Thus Black Caucus members and their Democratic colleagues believe a fairer redistricting plan will be devised by a three judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“They had no plan no maps … nothing,” said Caucus Chair State Senate Mamie Locke, Democrat of Hampton. “If we had remained in session and went through the motions they would have made some minor adjustments to the districts and just hoped it would meet judicial muster. I think we will get a better deal with the court.”
The 1st, 2nd, 4th and 7th Districts border the 3rd and moving Black voters from the 3rd and injecting them into one or more of the others would create another majority Black congressional district or one Democrats could favorably compete
One of the obvious targets of that idea is the 4th Congressional District represented now by Republican Randy Forbes..
In 2001, when the 4th Congressional District was nearly equally divided between Democrat and Republicans, Forbes narrowly won a race against Democratic State Sen. Louise Lucas, to replace Norman Sisisky (D-Va.), who died in March of that year.
During the next redistricting process, Republicans removed Black-voter rich Petersburg and Portsmouth from the 4th district, making it safe for Republicans.
The court could reverse that action this year.