virginia

SCOTUS's Virginia Redistricting Ruling: What Does it Mean?

This week, the Supreme Court preserved a lower court ruling striking down Virginia's House of Delegates districts as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in the case of Virginia House of Delegates vs. Bethune Hill. In a 5-4 decision, a cross-ideological majority of the Court (Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, Thomas and Gorsuch) found the GOP-led House lacked standing to appeal the lower court ruling.

The finale of the Virginia legal saga means this fall's legislative elections will proceed under a remedial map approved by a federal court in January that "unpacks" several heavily African-American districts in the Tidewater region, boosting Democrats. A different Supreme Court decision would have necessitated new primaries, because Virginia held its legislative primaries last Tuesday.

To date, Democratic redistricting groups haven't had much success convincing the Supreme Court to rule partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional - although the Court is set to rule anew on the matter any hour. But this decade, Democrats have found some success with an end-around: convincing courts to invalidate GOP-drawn maps on racial grounds in places like North Carolina and Virginia.
 


Here are three takeaways from this week's Virginia's ruling:

1. The Bethune Hill decision doesn't mean the Supreme Court is any likelier to change its mind on partisan gerrymandering. In Bethune Hill, the justices refused to overturn a new map Democrats like because the appellants lacked standing. But that has no real bearing on the merits of the partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland the Court is set to decide any hour.

Just last year, the Court continued to punt on that question, declining to set limits on partisan-skewed maps in cases originating from Wisconsin and Maryland. The only difference between then and now is Justice Brett Kavanaugh's installation in place of Anthony Kennedy, but most legal experts are skeptical Kavanaugh would side with the Court's liberals in adopting a standard for "how far is too far."

2. Virginia's new map makes Democrats the favorites to win the House of Delegates this fall. In 2017, a random drawing from a bowl to decide a tied race allowed Republicans to keep control of the chamber by a single seat. But the new map, which makes changes to 25 of 100 districts, unpacks African-American voters into many GOP-held seats, easing Democrats' path immensely.

The new map virtually assures the defeats of GOP Dels. David Yancey of Newport News (the winner of that random drawing) and Chris Jones of Suffolk, and gives Democrats an excellent chance to pick up Del. Gordon Helsel's open seat in Hampton. In addition, GOP Speaker Kirk Cox of Chesterfield and GOP Del. Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach newly find themselves in Clinton-carried districts.

3. If Democrats do take control of the House of Delegates this November, don't assume national implications for 2020. Democrats' near-takeover of the Virginia House in 2017 foreshadowed the blue wave of 2018. But since 2018, Democrats' performance in off-year elections hasn't been as remarkable. For example, new GOP Rep. Fred Keller (PA-12) basically matched Trump's 2016 margin in May.

Trump remains unpopular in diverse, high-income Virginia. But if Democrats flip the chamber this fall, the new, much more favorable map will have had more to do with the result than anything else. For Democrats, flipping the state senate (which hasn't been up since Trump took office) would be a bigger accomplishment, especially considering the woes of Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.