Advocates fight to end gerrymandering in Virginia Supreme Court

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RICHMOND – The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments Thursday in a case alleging that state lawmakers valued partisan politics over constitutional requirements in drawing 11 of the 100 districts for the House of Delegates.

Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021 – the state’s leading redistricting reform group – is heading the charge to end gerrymandering in Virginia both at the General Assembly and in the courtroom. Cannon said the districts in question distort natural political boundaries and ignore state-mandated size and shape regulations.

“Our compactness requirement should be a high priority since it’s in our state constitution,” Cannon said. “Clearly it wasn’t. Clearly partisan politics and discretionary criteria were valued over it.”

Cannon said his camp hopes for a decision to come down within the next two months.

Courts have long been wary of ruling on redistricting matters for fear of the political ramifications of their decisions. Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the “intentional seizure of the redistricting process” by a state court there.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month ruled the Republican-controlled legislature had drawn the state’s congressional districts with partisan intent. A remedial plan adopted by the court could swing three or four congressional districts the Democrats’ way. Republicans currently hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in Congress.

Bill Oglesby, an associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, said courts around the country are having difficulty adjudicating redistricting reform because it is a naturally political process. As in Pennsylvania, Virginia courts are caught in the political crossfires inherent in gerrymandering.

“The parties to this case are dealing with a classic Catch-22,” said Oglesby, who helped produce “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head,” a documentary advocating for an overhaul of Virginia’s redistricting system.

“The state constitution requires the General Assembly to draw compact districts, but lower courts have said the politicians can decide what is compact, and they are the very ones who have a political incentive to stretch the meaning of that term.”

With court proceedings slowed by political ramifications, redistricting reform proponents have been focused on legislation in hopes of establishing immediate criteria for redrawing Virginia’s legislative districts after the U.S. census in 2020:

  • Senate Bill 106 establishes criteria for districts to be redrawn after the 2020 census, including equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, compactness and communities of interest. The House of Delegates approved the legislation, 90-9, on Wednesday. HB 1598, a companion bill, was passed by the Senate on Monday, 23-17.
  • House Bill 312 sought to establish a commission to hold public hearings on the redistricting process. It died in a House Rules subcommittee on Feb. 13.
  • HB 205 would have required legislative districts to be redrawn should any state or federal court declare them unlawful or unconstitutional. The bill was left in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on Feb. 13.

Cannon said redistricting reform concerns a “fundamental question of fairness” he believes most Virginians agree upon.

“Voters should be able to choose their legislators, not the other way around,” Cannon said.

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