Supreme Court Denies Virginia House of Delegates’ Challenge to Redistricting

June 17, 2019 Updated: June 17, 2019

A divided Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit by Republican lawmakers in Virginia challenging redrawn state legislative districts they claim were racially gerrymandered to benefit Democrats.

The decision could help Virginia Democrats in the election this fall. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot for Nov. 5. Currently, Republicans maintain thin majorities in both chambers—51 to 49 in the House of Delegates and 21 to 19 in the Senate. Whichever party controls the General Assembly in 2021 will oversee the statewide redistricting process that will follow the 2020 census.

Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, hailed the ruling as “a victory for democracy and voting rights in our Commonwealth,” and said he was “pleased that this fall, every Virginian, no matter who they are or where they live, will cast their ballots in fair and constitutional districts.”

Earlier this year, old photos from Northam’s medical school yearbook surfaced. Northam’s page featured a photo showing one person in blackface and another in a white Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam has so far resisted widespread demands from within his own party that he step down.

Adam Kincaid of the National Republican Redistricting Trust said the court decision “will reverberate across the states, touching virtually every area of politically charged law.” He accused the court of embracing “expediency.”

In the Supreme Court case, Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, wanted to discard a map drawn by a lower court and revive a previous one. Democrats, on the other hand, preferred the new map. The case has traveled to the Supreme Court twice before. Both times Democrats prevailed.

Republicans say the previous map was approved with bipartisan and black leaders’ support and was cleared by the Obama-era Department of Justice. Despite this, the lower court found that black voters were bunched together in districts in a manner that unconstitutionally deprived them of representation.

But June 17, the Supreme Court turned back the GOP challenge without diving into the nitty-gritty of electoral cartography.

The high court found on a vote of 5 to 4 that the Virginia House of Delegates lacked legal standing to initiate the lawsuit on behalf of the state. The court agreed with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, who argued that the members of one of the two chambers of the General Assembly had no legal right to speak for the Old Dominion and had usurped his authority to defend state laws in court.

The decision in the case known as Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill did not split along the usual ideological lines found in the high court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, wrote the majority opinion, in which liberals Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, as well as conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, joined.

“The House, we hold, lacks authority to displace Virginia’s Attorney General as representative of the State,” Ginsburg wrote. “We further hold that the House, as a single chamber of a bicameral legislature, has no standing to appeal the invalidation of the redistricting plan separately from the State of which it is a part.”

“In short, Virginia would rather stop than fight on. One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process,” the justice concluded.

Justice Samuel Alito penned a dissenting opinion, joined by fellow conservatives John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, as well as liberal Stephen Breyer.

Alito wrote that he found no “support for the proposition that Virginia law bars the House from defending, in its own right, the constitutionality of a districting plan.”

Invalidating the House’s redistricting plan “would cause the House to suffer a ‘concrete’ injury,” which ought to be considered by the Supreme Court, he wrote.