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SCOTUS: Virginia legislature cannot defend racially gerrymandered map



On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled to uphold a lower court ruling striking down Virginia’s 2011 House of Delegates map as racially gerrymandered, a remapping of Virginia congressional districts on racial lines that weakened the clout of black voters and violated the U.S. Constitution.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, sidestepped a ruling on the merits of the case itself, not taking a position on whether the lower court was correct in striking down a 2011 Virginia House of Delegates map on the grounds that it constituted a racial gerrymander.

They instead found that the Republican-led state House of Delegates lacked the necessary legal standing to appeal a lower court ruling that invalidated 11 state House districts for racial discrimination.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat and the state’s top law enforcement official, opposed the appeal and argued in March that only he and not Republican-controlled House of Delegates was entitled to act on behalf of the state in the case.

Read more: The Trump administration added a citizenship question to the 2020 census to help Republicans win elections, according to new evidence

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch concurring.

“The House, we hold, lacks authority to displace Virginia’s Attorney General as representative of the State,” the majority opinion said. “We further hold that the House, as a single chamber of a bicameral legislature, has no standing to appeal the invalidation of the redistricting plan separately from the State of which it is a part.”

The Supreme Court’s action let stand a 2018 ruling by a federal three-judge panel that the 11 districts all violated the rights of black voters to equal protection under the law under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The roots of the case the Court ruled on, Virginia House of Delegates vs. Golden Bethune-Hill, began back in 2014 when residents of 12 legislative districts drawn by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates after the 2010 census, challenged the map as unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

The plaintiffs argued that by “packing” black voters into certain districts, the legislature violated the equal protection clause by diluting the political power of African-Americans and drawing a map to create more majority-white districts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

After a panel of three federal judges initially sided with the legislature, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court in 2017, which ruled 6-2 that those judges applied the incorrect standard in ruling on the case and ordering them to re-hear the case.

Read more: The Supreme Court just blocked an order telling Republicans in Ohio and Michigan to redraw congressional districts without explaining why

Later that year, the same panel of judges applied a different legal standard to evaluate the arguments in the case, and ruled 2-1 that the 11 districts were, in fact, racially gerrymandered, ordering the state to redraw the districts and prompting the legislature to appeal again to the Supreme Court.

Over the next month, the Court is also expected to release other widely-anticipated rulings on cases related to legislative maps and political representation.

They include a case challenging North Carolina’s congressional district maps as gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, and a blockbuster case which will decide whether the Trump administration can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census — a change that could carry significant implications for how political maps are drawn.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Editing by Will Dunham for Reuters).

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