RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A federal appeals court has sent a case challenging the 2021 Virginia House elections back to a lower court to determine whether the Democratic activist behind the lawsuit has legal standing to sue.
A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments last week from Paul Goldman, a lawyer and the former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, and Virginia Solicitor General Andrew Ferguson after the state appealed a U.S. District Court’s ruling allowing the case to move forward.
Goldman and Ferguson argued the case’s merits and whether Goldman demonstrated in his lawsuit how he was injured by the decision to hold last year’s House of Delegates elections under old district lines.
The question before the appeals court was if Goldman had standing to sue members of the state’s Board of Elections and Virginia’s Elections Commissioner, a decision the judges punted back to the lower court Tuesday.
“It is apparent that a determination of the standing to sue issue ‘cannot be achieved simply by reviewing the plaintiffs’ pleadings and the limited record on appeal,'” the court wrote in an order.
Holding the 2021 elections under districts drawn using Census data from 2011, Goldman asserts, violated the “one person, one vote” constitutional rule and left many districts, including his own, underrepresented as a result. Ferguson claimed Goldman’s argument lacked legal standing and implored the appeals court to vacate the lower court’s ruling.
“This is a victory for the people,” Goldman said Tuesday. “Hopefully now the people who have just been sending me good luck can join my case. There’s nothing to stop them.”
Goldman’s lawsuit seeks to have all 100 state delegates serve one-year terms and require another round of elections under the redrawn districts that have been updated with new census data to reflect the population shifts over the last decade.
Calls have grown for Virginia to hold House elections this year using the new political maps approved by the state’s Supreme Court. The ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia NAACP and several of its local chapters have recently backed the push.
The Eastern District of Virginia will now settle whether Goldman has Article III standing to sue, a process that the appeals court acknowledged would likely require more time for “additional jurisdictional discovery.”
While Goldman was encouraged by the court’s order Tuesday, questions remain on whether the legal battle can be resolved in time for the November midterms. Before the court issued its order, Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) said he felt House elections this year would be improbable due to the need for discovery, hearings and potential appeals.
“There’s just no way. I’ve been practicing law for 22 years, I’ve never seen courts move in that kind of speed,” Del. Anderson, a lawyer who won his seat in 2021, told 8News Monday. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to run out of time.”
Anderson didn’t discuss his thoughts on the merits of Goldman’s case but said he wouldn’t have an issue running again if that’s what the courts order. “If I were betting, there’s zero chance that the House of Delegates is going to have to run again this year,” he said.
Goldman disagreed with those arguments, saying he felt there was time for the courts to settle the case in time for Virginia House primaries in August.
“There’s plenty of time for the judicial to vindicate the rights of the people, or of the AG’s right,” Goldman said. “The governor and attorney general should join in and say the rights of voters were violated because of the use of unconstitutional districts last year.”
The state appealed U.S. District Judge David J. Novak’s decision to allow Goldman lawsuit to move forward against the election officials when Attorney General Mark Herring was in office.
Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office has shot down Goldman’s claims that the state is trying to avoid arguing the merits of the lawsuit, with Ferguson telling the three-judge panel on March 8 that the 2021 House elections were “perfectly constitutional.”
“The Attorney General’s Office will continue to defend the Constitutionality of the 2021 elections,” Victoria LaCivita, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said in a statement Tuesday.
If Goldman ultimately prevails in court, the battle for control of the House of Delegates would be on the ballot three years in a row. If he were to fail, the next House elections using the new political maps would come in 2023.
Democrats had control of the Virginia House of Delegates before Republicans took back a majority in the 2021 elections.