RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal court on Friday concluded for the second time that Virginia's congressional boundaries are unconstitutional because state lawmakers packed black voters into one district in order to make adjacent districts safer for Republican incumbents.
In a 2-1 ruling, a judicial panel ordered the General Assembly to draw new boundaries by Sept. 1 to correct the flawed 2012 redistricting plan. The court first struck down the plan in October, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered reconsideration in light of a ruling in an Alabama redistricting case.
The judges in Virginia again ruled that race was the predominant factor — not just one of many considerations — in crafting the plan, thus violating the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"The legislative record here is replete with statements indicating that race was the legislature's paramount concern," Judge Allyson Duncan of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the majority opinion.
The Virginia case is part of a larger effort by Democrats to challenge congressional districts throughout the country. Strong Republican state-level gains in the 2010 election cycle gave the GOP increased power during once-in-a-decade congressional redistricting. Democrats have alleged in lawsuits in other states, including North Carolina, Florida and Alabama, that Republicans have drawn racially gerrymandered districts.
Marc Elias, an attorney for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust who represented the Virginia plaintiffs, said he is pleased with Friday's ruling and would oppose any efforts by Republicans to delay the Sept 1. deadline for drawing new districts.
"The people of Virginia have lived under an unconstitutional map now for two congressional cycles," he said. "The legislature should do its job and pass a constitutional map."
Elias also represents several prominent Virginia politicians and is general counsel to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.
Republican Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell said the "defendants should have the opportunity to fully litigate this case. In light of today's decision, we are evaluating the next steps."
A lawyer for the Republican congressmen who are defendants in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit focused on 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. Scott, who was unopposed in last November's election, is one of only three Democrats in Virginia's 11-member congressional delegation.
The plan approved by the Republican-controlled legislature increased the 3rd District's black voting-age population from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent. The result was an oddly shaped district composed of "a disparate chain of communities, predominantly African-American, loosely connected by the James River," Duncan wrote.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed legislators could have shifted a large number of black voters from Scott's district into a neighboring Republican district without substantially diluting black voting strength in the 3rd. During the mapmaking process, Republicans rejected an alternative plan that would have created a second black-majority district.
U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady joined in the majority opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, U.S. District Judge Robert Payne reasserted his previous position that race was just one of many factors legislators considered.