Fadel Allassan, Staff writer
A panel of three federal judges dismissed a lawsuit challenging the boundaries of 12 Virginia House of Delegate voting districts on Oct. 20 in Bethune-Hill v. the Virginia Board of Elections.
The plaintiff, the Democratic National Redistricting Trust, argued the Republican-controlled legislature unfairly redrew voting districts to pack black voters into state and federal zones to diminish their influence following the 2010 census.
Tuesday’s decision in the Bethune-Hill case contrasts the ruling in a separate but similar lawsuit filed in 2013 where the plaintiffs challenged Virginia’s 3rd congressional district on the same premise of lawmakers unfairly grouping African-American voters.
In that case, a panel of three federal judges sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the General Assembly to draw a new congressional map by September 2015. Lawmakers could not agree on how to redraw the district and the court appointed University of California, Irvine professor of economics and political science Bernard Grofman to aid in the redistricting process.
On Tuesday, the Eastern District court ruled 2-1 that the House of Delegates’ redistricting plan concluding that, “each of the twelve Challenged Districts withstands constitutional scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause,” is constitutional. The court stated that Republican lawmakers did not use racial gerrymandering to give their party an advantage and the districts meet the state’s interest of ensuring the representation of minority groups.
House Speaker William J. Howell applauded the decision and said the lawsuit was politically motivated.
The lawsuit came despite the fact that the House districts were adopted with bipartisan support, including the support of a majority of the African-American members in the House of Delegates at the time, and approved by President Obama’s Department of Justice,” Howell told The Washington Post following the decision.
Brian Cannon, Executive Director of the redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021, said the court labeled the districts in question a “political gerrymander,” and said despite being antithetical to democracy, political gerrymandering is completely legal.
A press statement from OneVirginia2021 released Tuesday cited the panels’ approval of the 55 percent black voting age population threshold as acceptable in the Bethune-Hill case, despite the same threshold ruled as a racial gerrymander when applied to the 3rd Congressional District case earlier this year.
This court’s ruling makes the case for reforming Virginia’s redistricting process to make political gerrymandering illegal,” Cannon said regarding Tuesday’s decision. “There’s no place in our Commonwealth for racial or political gerrymandering.”
OneVirginia2021 also recently launched a lawsuit challenging the boundaries of Virginia’s voter districts. The group sued the state election board in September on the grounds of the current districts not being compact — a requirement of the Virginia state constitution. This suit has yet to be deliberated in court.
Tuesday’s Bethune-Hill case decision was financed by the Democratic National Redistricting Trust. Marc Elias, the Trust’s legal counsel, is also the general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“We are reviewing the court’s decision and expect to appeal,” Elias told The Washington Post.