Supreme Court rules Virginia state House lacks standing to appeal gerrymandering ruling
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Virginia House of Delegates lacked standing to appeal a lower court order that struck down the state’s legislative district plan as a racial gerrymander. As a result, the state House’s legislative maps which were drawn by a court-appointed special master will stand. Those maps were used in Virginia’s state legislative primary elections held last week.
In Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, the Court decided that the House of Delegates does not have the authority to represent Virginia’s interests in this matter. Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Thomas, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch. She wrote, “the State did not designate the House to represent its interests here. Under Virginia law, authority and responsibility for representing the State’s interests in civil litigation rest exclusively with the State’s Attorney General.”
Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh. He wrote that the district court’s decision redrawing the legislative maps harmed the state House so as to give it standing to appeal the case. He wrote, “we must assume that the districting plan enacted by the legislature embodies the House’s judgment regarding the method of selecting members that best enables it to serve the people of the Commonwealth…It therefore follows that discarding that plan and substituting another inflicts injury in fact.”
The legislative maps that were drawn by a court-appointed special master and challenged by the House of Delegates first went into effect in January. They were the result of a sequence of lawsuits that began in 2014.
That year, opponents of Virginia’s legislative map filed suit in federal district court alleging that 12 state legislative districts constituted an illegal racial gerrymander. The district court rejected this argument, and the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In 2017, SCOTUS remanded the case in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia Board of Elections, finding that the district court 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 the 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.
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Under the old maps, Hillary Clinton won 51 districts in 2016 and Donald Trump won 49. Under the new maps, Clinton would have won 56 districts (7 currently held by Republicans) while Trump would have won 44 (none currently held by Democrats).
The Supreme Court has yet to issue opinions in two other redistricting cases heard this term—Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The cases concern whether the congressional district maps adopted in North Carolina and Maryland, respectively, constitute an illegal partisan gerrymander. Decisions in both cases are expected by the end of June.