RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously appointed two map drawers Friday to help the court redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts.
The justices selected Sean Trende, the Republican special master nominee, and Bernard Grofman, the candidate put forward by Virginia Democrats, to help the court with the state’s political redistricting. The two special masters now have up to 30 days to work together on new political maps to submit to the court for consideration.
“The Court directs the Special Masters to confer among themselves to propose a single redistricting map for the Virginia House of Delegates, a single redistricting map for the Senate of Virginia, and a single redistricting map for Virginia’s representatives to the United States House of Representatives,” the justices wrote in an order Friday.
Trende is a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and a visiting scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank. He has given expert testimony in a racial gerrymandering case in North Carolina and political gerrymandering cases in multiple states, and was appointed as a Voting Rights Act expert by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
Grofman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, served as special master to the courts in the redrawing of Virginia’s congressional districts in 2015 and House of Delegates districts in 2018.
In their order Friday, the justices directed the special masters to present their proposed maps to the court “as soon as reasonably practicable” but they will have 30 days to submit their plans.
Virginia’s political redistricting, a once-a-decade process of redrawing electoral maps with new census data, is now in the hands of the justices after the 16-member commission created by a constitutional amendment failed to get through partisan squabbling to come to an agreement on new political maps.
Under rules adopted by the court, the justices won’t be drawing the new maps themselves but instead will select two special masters by majority vote that have the proper qualifications and experience — one nominated by Democrats, and one put forward by Republicans — to assist in the process.
The justices asked Democratic and Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate to submit three or more qualified nominees without conflicts of interests by Nov. 1.
The court’s final decision on the two map drawers came a week after the justices rejected all three of the Republicans’ nominees and ordered state legislative leaders to nominate new candidates.
In an order directing party leaders to find new nominees on Nov. 12, the justices noted they did not question any of the candidates’ integrity but wrote that work one special master nominee did for the Virginia Senate Republican caucus created a conflict. The court disqualified that Republican-nominated map drawer and the other two, citing concerns about their ability to serve in the role.
After one of their candidates expressed “a condition or reservation” over working with another special master for the redistricting process, Democratic leaders were ordered to put forward new nominees as well.
While special master candidates are nominated by state legislative leaders from each party, the justices wrote in the Nov. 12 order that they “will serve as officers of the Court in a quasi-judicial capacity” and must be neutral.
In separate letters to the court Wednesday, Republican and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly asked the justices to consider certain requests for the redistricting process.
Democrats urged the justices “to establish a briefing process with dates for submissions from the majority and minority caucuses,” and pushed for a period of public comment after the proposed maps are released. After having their nominees challenged by Democrats, Republicans asked the court to give both parties “due process and an opportunity to be heard on matters of qualification.”
Hoping to end gerrymandering in Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of the bipartisan redistricting commission to oversee 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.
After months of work, the commission made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizen members reached a partisan deadlock and abandoned the effort without submitting new maps to the state legislature.