Supreme Court’s redistricting decision may be ‘most important development in Virginia politics in a generation’

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VCU Professor Alex Keena, Ph.D., said the Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill delivers a major structural advantage to Democrats in the General Assembly elections. (Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Virginia’s Republican-led House of Delegates did not have legal standing to challenge a lower court’s finding that a number of Virginia’s legislative districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered.

As a result, the court’s decision will ensure that many voters will cast ballots in redrawn districts this fall, when all 140 seats in the House and Senate are up for election. Primary elections were held last week with the new districts.

Alex Keena, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, co-author of “Gerrymandering in America” (2016), and author of a number of articles on campaign financing and partisan gerrymandering.

Keena said the court’s decision in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill delivers a major structural advantage to Democrats in the General Assembly elections, which will determine which party will control congressional and state legislative redistricting in 2021.

Consequently, he said, the court’s decision Monday “may be the most important development in Virginia politics in a generation because it will impact the balance of partisan politics for the next decade and beyond.”

Alex Keena, Ph.D.
Alex Keena, Ph.D.

What is the background on Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill?

Last year, a federal court weighed in on a racial gerrymandering challenge to the House of Delegates district plan that was passed by the General Assembly in 2011 and signed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. The challenge involved 12 Central Virginia districts, which were drawn to include large African American majorities. The court sided with African American voters and held that the House plan violated the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act because it unfairly diluted the voting power of African Americans. It ordered the Republican-controlled General Assembly to draw a new districting plan, but the General Assembly failed to meet the court’s deadline, so the court appointed a special master, Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, to draw a new plan that equalizes the voting power of African Americans in Central Virginia.

Because African Americans historically tend to vote Democratic, the new plan has the consequence of undermining the Republican Party’s geographic advantage and puts several Republican House incumbents into competitive districts. Although Attorney General Mark Herring (D) was satisfied with the legality of the new map and declined to challenge it in court, Republicans in the House of Delegates, led by Speaker Kirk Cox (R), decided to challenge it on behalf of the commonwealth.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday rejects this challenge on the grounds that one legislative chamber alone does not have standing to sue. In the 5-4 decision, joined by both liberals and conservatives on the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that “one house of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process.”

Why does this decision matter?

With the Supreme Court’s rejection of the House of Delegates’ appeal, the new plans (which were in place for last week’s primary elections) will be in place for November’s House of Delegates elections. Although the original suit was limited to 12 majority-minority districts in the Richmond and Petersburg areas, the new map affects the boundaries of 25 districts. Eight of these districts are currently held by Republican incumbents who become more vulnerable under the new map. Ironically, the biggest shift is District 66, currently held by Cox, which was previously reliably Republican but now becomes a majority-Democratic district. This puts Cox at risk of losing reelection for the first time since he was elected to the House in 1990.

What does this mean for Virginia politics in the long run?

The lower court's ruling in Bethune-Hill, which is held in place by SCOTUS’ ruling today, may be the single most important court ruling to affect the General Assembly in a generation. It effectively levels the playing field for Democrats, who come into November building on last year’s big wins in the congressional elections.

This year’s elections are particularly important because they will determine who controls the General Assembly for 2021 redistricting. In 2011, the last redistricting year, Republicans controlled the House of Delegates and the governorship.

For the upcoming redistricting process, Democrats will control the governorship (which will give them veto power over the plans enacted by the General Assembly), and they now are well positioned to retake both houses of the General Assembly.

In sum, after this year’s state legislative elections, Democrats may solidify control of state government for the next two years, which will give them the power to redraw state and congressional districts to their advantage. Thus, today’s rulings may fundamentally impact the state of Virginia politics for the next decade.