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SCOTUS’ Narrow Racial Gerrymandering Decision Is A Major Win For VA Dems

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 03: People hold signs during a rally to call for "An End to Partisan Gerrymandering" at the Supreme Court of the United States on October 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
June 17, 2019 11:51 a.m.

The Supreme Court’s Monday 5-4 decision in a racial gerrymandering case will only affect Virginia, but it will affect Virginia in a very big way.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — joined by an unusual mix of liberal and conservative justices — wrote a narrow majority opinion that decided the case on a procedural issue that won’t impact any other state’s map-drawing efforts.

The GOP-controlled House of Delegates did not have standing to bring the case to the justice, Ginsburg wrote, citing a Virginia statute that gives the state’s attorney general — who had opted not to appeal a ruling that a 2011 map was a racial gerrymander — the exclusive authority to defend the state in civil litigation.

“In short, Virginia would rather stop than fight on,” Ginsburg said.

That meant the court did not have to decide one way or another the merits of the Republicans’ argument in defending their racially gerrymandered map.

The legislators had argued that using a quota to determine the percentage of African Americans in each of the challenged districts was an appropriate way to keep the map in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

Because of the narrowness of the Supreme Court’s decision Monday, we won’t get a resolution as to the legality of using such an arbitrary threshold — an issue that has come up in other cases.

But that doesn’t mean the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling are themselves minor — at least for the state of Virginia.

The state now will be using a new map — ordered by the lower court that found the original map to be a racial gerrymander — for the 2019 elections.

That map stands to shift five or six House districts from Republicans to Democrats, putting on Dems on good ground to capture the House of Delegates, where the GOP holds a 51-49 majority. Republicans likewise barely hold a majority in the Virginia Senate.

That means Democrats will hold the governor’s mansion and likely at least one, if not two, chambers of the legislature come spring 2021, when the state will draw new maps after the 2020 census.

A question I’ll be watching is whether a complete Democratic-takeover of the redistricting process in Virginia takes some of the wind out of the sails of the current gerrymandering reform push in the state.

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