In the spring of 2011, the General Assembly convened in the Capitol in Richmond to begin its once-a-decade job of redistricting, redrawing the legislative maps for the state Senate, the House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2010 U.S. Census.
Partisan redistricting is a brutal, no-holds-barred exercise of pure political power. No one is safe from the power of a legislative mapmaker, not even members of one’s own party. It’s a time when scores are settled, favors called in and debts repaid.
In previous decades, Democrats held near-complete power in Richmond in the process, slicing and dicing districts to their favor at will, which usually meant a great many Republican corpses on the floor. Powerful Democratic legislators like Richard Cranwell in the House and Hunter Andrews in the Senate saw to it that their friends were rewarded and foes — mostly Republicans — dealt with.
In 2011, however, Republicans held a 2-to-1 advantage in the House of Delegates, and they intended to use that power to do unto others as they had been done to in years past … and then some. (The state Senate was a different story: The 40-member upper chamber was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, casting tie-breaking votes when needed.)
Republican members of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, which oversees redistricting, set out to redraw their 100 districts with one goal in mind: protect and increase their majority in the chamber.
The map they devised did just that, and the GOP majority in the House stood firm in the November 2011 elections when all seats in the Assembly were up for grabs. But trouble was on the horizon.
Democrats, who then held fewer than a third of the House’s 100 seats, contended the GOP plan constituted an illegal racial gerrymander. Specifically, their lawyers argued in court, Republicans had created 11 super-majority-minority districts by packing Democratic-leaning African American voters into 100-percent safe Democratic seats when they could have dispersed those voters over a larger number of surrounding districts, making them competitive for both parties rather than safe GOP seats.
A Fourth Circuit federal judge ruled in the Democrats’ favor, as did an appellate panel. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial level for re-adjudication, based on a legal technicality, but the original conclusion was upheld. Since then, the case has been making its way back up the federal judicial ladder, until the Supreme Court agreed in 2018 to hear arguments in its 2018-19 term, which it did in November last year.
On Monday, the court released its decision, ruling 5-4, that the House Republicans lacked official standing to bring the case. The commonwealth, led by Attorney General Mark Herring, argued only his office, representing Virginia itself, could appeal such a matter, not one half of the two-chamber legislative branch.
This November, all 100 House seats will be up for grabs using new maps drawn just this year by a special master appointed by a federal judge. All told, 26 districts saw their boundaries changed, rendering them infinitely more competitive than before.
Though not a sweeping, anti-gerrymandering ruling, the justices nonetheless sent a powerful message to legislatures across the country: If you try to pull off an illegal racial gerrymander, justice will eventually catch up to you.