Va. Democrats want state Supreme Court to reject GOP-nominated map drawers

Capitol Connection

State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Farifax, looks over legislation on the floor of the Senate at the Capitol, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Senate Democrats are accusing Republicans of nominating “partisan political operatives” with conflicts of interests to help the Virginia Supreme Court redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

The high court is now in charge of redistricting, a once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps with new census data, after a 16-member bipartisan commission failed to get past partisan disputes to create the new boundaries.

Under rules adopted by the court, the justices won’t be drawing the new maps but instead will select two “special masters” with the proper qualifications and experience — one nominated by Democrats and one put forward by Republicans — as map drawers to assist in the process.

But Virginia Senate Democrats believe all three nominees submitted by Republicans should be disqualified from contention, citing rules on conflicts of interest in a letter sent to the clerk of the Virginia Supreme Court on Monday.

In the letter, the caucus noted the Republican nominees’ past work on maps that were later deemed unconstitutional and money given to one nominee from the Virginia Senate Republican caucus.

“Consistent with these requirements, the statute authorizes each caucus to nominate neutral special masters who will operate as an extension of this Court, not partisan operatives to act on behalf of their respective caucuses’ naked political interests,” Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) wrote. “But that is who the minority has nominated.”

Republicans have nominated Adam Kincaid, Thomas Bryan and Adam Foltz.

  • Kincaid, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s former redistricting coordinator, now serves as the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust and Fair Lines America. Democrats attacked Kincaid’s past record as redistricting coordinator in the letter, writing that he “collaborated in drafting Ohio legislative maps that a three-judge federal court later found were an extreme, illegal partisan gerrymander.”
  • Bryan founded a consulting and expert witness firm specializing in redistricting after working as a statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau. In September, he received $20,000 in consulting fees from Virginia Senate Republicans. Democrats noted that GOP lawmakers did not disclose that Bryan had consulted the caucus when nominating him for special master.
  • Foltz served as an aide to Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate, working as the primary map drawer for the caucus during the state’s 2011 redistricting process, and is now working with the Texas House Redistricting Committee on the state’s redistricting effort. Democrats pointed to Foltz’s participation in Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting. A lower court ruled the redrawn maps were unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering, but when the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices ruled the plaintiffs had not established standing to strike down the state’s legislative maps and sent it back to the district court.

“What reasonable person could expect Mr. Kincaid or Mr. Foltz—both of whom have been found by courts to have engaged in extreme gerrymandering to advantage Republicans—to be impartial here? What reasonable person could expect Mr. Bryan—who recently worked as a paid consultant to Virginia Senate Republicans—to be disinterested?” Saslaw asks in the letter.

Democrats have been open about their displeasure over the Republican-nominated map drawers, with some urging people on social media to share their thoughts with the high court by a 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday. “The VA Supreme Court is now in charge of drawing fair, nonpartisan maps. But the GOP is trying to force the Court to appoint a partisan operative to oversee the process,” Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Email the Court at Redistricting@vacourts.gov to say NO to this effort to sabotage the redistricting process!”

Virginia Republicans have put the blame for the redistricting commission’s inability to come up with new political maps on Democrats, specifically the citizen members appointed to serve on the panel. Jeff Ryer, the spokesman for Virginia Senate Republicans, doubled down on those claims on Tuesday.

“After deliberately deadlocking and walking out on the Redistricting Commission, the Democrats are now looking to the Court for a ‘do-over,’” Ryer wrote in an email to 8News.

After months of meetings, the panel remained deadlocked along partisan lines and missed deadlines to submit new legislative and congressional maps to the General Assembly. Once the special masters are picked, they are expected to work together to develop plans that will be filed with the clerk of the state Supreme Court no later than 30 calendar days after they are appointed.

Ryer blasted Democrats’ request to the Supreme Court, asserting that the party’s own nominees for “special master” have records illustrating they have partisan biases.

Democrats have nominated Bruce E. Cain, Nathaniel Persily and Bernard N. Grofman.

  • Cain, a Stanford University professor, is a redistricting consultant and served as a special master to draw Arizona’s state legislative districts in 2002. He served as a consultant to Maryland’s attorney general during the state’s redistricting in 2011. The state’s redistricting process prompted legal complaints alleging Democrats of gerrymandering a congressional district, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was written about by Cain in 2018. The case was brought forward by a group of Republicans claiming that Democratic lawmakers had redrawn the district’s boundaries to dilute the GOP vote. While the Supreme Court ruled against the Republicans’ effort for an injunction, and sidestepped a decision on partisan gerrymandering, a lower court did grant a request in 2018 to block using the map and ordered new maps be drawn for the 2020 elections. The case eventually went back to the Supreme Court in 2019 until the high court ruled “partisan gerrymandering claims are not justiciable” and sent it back to the district court for dismissal.
  • Persily, a Stanford Law School professor, has been a court-appointed special master for drawing state legislative and congressional maps in several other states.
  • Grofman served as special master to courts in the drawing of Virginia’s congressional districts in 2015 and House of Delegates districts in 2018. He is currently a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

“The Democrat nominees for special master are all extreme-left academics with well-demonstrated records of considering one and only one criteria when it comes to drawing district lines: What will benefit Democrats most,” Ryer added. “These desperate and brazenly transparent efforts by Senate Democrats – who are responsible for the current tortured lines of Senate districts – to influence and direct the Supreme Court of Virginia are inappropriate, outrageous, and shameless.”

A spokesperson for House Republicans did not provide a statement regarding the claims from Democrats, but it appears that the GOP won’t be filing complaints over the Democrats’ nominees.

Hoping to end gerrymandering in Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of a bipartisan redistricting commission to be in charge of the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing political maps.

Census delays were expected with the coronavirus pandemic initially curbing the U.S Census Bureau’s in-person data collecting efforts, but the agency pushed back several deadlines and information that typically arrives in the spring was given to the Virginia Redistricting Commission in August.

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