RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia legislators packed too many black voters into one congressional district in order to make adjacent districts safer for Republican incumbents, a federal court ruled Tuesday.
The 2-1 ruling by a panel of judges left the state's congressional districts intact for November's elections but ordered the General Assembly to draw new boundaries by April 1 next year correcting the flawed 2012 redistricting plan.
At issue was the 3rd Congressional District, which has had a black majority since 1991. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the state's only black congressman, has represented the district since 1993 and has never faced a serious challenge. With the current boundaries in place in 2012, he won with 81 percent of the vote. Scott is one of only three Democrats in Virginia's 11-member congressional delegation.
With Democratic-backing, two voters from the 3rd District filed a lawsuit challenging the district map. The plaintiffs claimed that the lawmakers who drew it could have shifted a large number of black voters from Scott's district into a neighboring district currently represented by a Republican, increasing Democratic influence there without substantially diluting the voting strength of blacks in Scott's district.
During the mapmaking process, the Republican-dominated legislature rejected an alternative plan that would have created a second black-majority district.
Judge Allyson Duncan of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady said in Tuesday's majority decision that evidence showed race was the predominant factor when the General Assembly redrew the boundaries, increasing the 3rd District's black voting age population from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent. The judges noted that former Del. Bill Janis, the Republican who sponsored the redistricting plan, acknowledged that race was primary consideration.
U.S. District Judge Robert Payne said in a dissenting opinion that race was just one of many factors legislators considered.
The judges also said the 3rd District split more voting precincts and localities than any of Virginia's other 10 districts — fallout from the emphasis on race. It's an oddly shaped district stretching from Norfolk northwesterly into Richmond, with an arm jutting into heavily black Petersburg. The Newport News portion of the district is horseshoe-shaped.
Scott said in a written statement that during the last redistricting, he supported an alternative plan that made all congressional districts more compact and contiguous. He said he hopes the General Assembly "will more equitably and appropriately balance the influence of all Virginia's voters" when it redraws the map next year.
House Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican, declined to comment.
"Today's ruling demonstrates the need to get partisan politics out of how Virginia draws its legislative boundaries," Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a written statement. "The court's order to redraw our congressional map is an opportunity to emerge with a map that reflects the best interests of Virginia families, not the political interests of the people drawing the lines."
A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office defended the plan because the defendants were members of the State Board of Elections, said lawyers there are reviewing the decision and deciding how to proceed.
Marc Elias, an attorney for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust who represented the plaintiffs, said he was pleased with the ruling but would have preferred a remedy in time for November's election.
"The Republicans engaged in a cynical effort to racially gerrymander a section of Virginia and the court rejected that," he said in a telephone interview. "I hope the legislature takes that to heart when they redraw the districts next year."