SCOTUS finds Virginia lawmakers lack standing to challenge newly adopted state legislative district plan

On June 17, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, finding that the state House, controlled by Republicans, lacked standing to appeal a lower court order striking down the original legislative district plan as a racial gerrymander. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4, with Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg penning the majority opinion, joined by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Neil Gorsuch. Associate Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh. As a result of the high court’s ruling, a lower court order implementing a remedial district plan will stand.
In 2014, opponents of the state legislative district plan adopted during Virginia’s 2010 redistricting cycle filed suit against the state in federal district court, alleging that 12 legislative districts constituted an illegal racial gerrymander as drawn. The district court rejected this argument, and the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2017, the high court remanded the case to the district court, finding that it had “employed an incorrect legal standard in determining that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts.” In 2018, the district court ruled that these 11 districts had been subject to racial gerrymandering. After the state legislature did not adopt a remedial plan, the district court appointed a special master to draft one. On January 22, 2019, the district court issued an order implementing this remedial plan. Republican lawmakers in the House of Delegates appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring (D), declined to join the appeal. This prompted the question of standing on which the high court ruled in today’s opinion.
Every state legislative seat in Virginia is up for election this year. The remedial plan implemented by the district court this year applies to the 2019 election cycle. The outcomes of these elections will determine the composition of state government heading into the 2020 redistricting cycle. If Republicans maintain their majorities in both chambers, they will be assured a position of influence during redistricting efforts. If Democrats win both chambers, they will gain trifecta control of state government and, by extension, the redistricting process (the governorship, which is not up for election until 2021, is held by Democrat Ralph Northam).
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