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No delay of new Virginia federal districting map

Unpersuaded that a failure to act would lead to “widespread mass confusion” in this year’s congressional elections in Virginia, the Supreme Court refused on Monday to delay the use in 2016 of a new election-districts map drawn by a lower three-judge federal court.  That will allow the new maps to be used even while the Court is reviewing the validity of an earlier map drawn by the state legislature but nullified by the lower court.  The Justices are due to hold a hearing on the earlier map on March 21, in the case of Wittman v. Personhuballah.

Lawyers representing Republican members of Congress from Virginia had warned that, without a delay, candidates would have to run “two-front” campaigns in five districts, running in both the districts as composed by the legislature and the new districts drawn up by the lower court.  Depending on when the Court rules on the earlier map, both this year’s primary and general elections for House of Representatives seats in the state might have to be postponed, the lawyers contended.  The primary is now set for June 14 and the general for November 8, the lawyers contended.

The Court turned down the stay application (15A724) with no sign that any Justice had dissented.  There was no explanation for the denial.

This dispute has been unfolding over the past four years, since the legislature drew a new map for House of Representatives District 3.  That district was originally created in 1998 as a remedy for a finding that it was drawn in a racially discriminatory way.  Since its creation, District 3 has been represented by Bobby Scott, the only black member of the state’s House delegation and one of three Democrats in the eleven-member delegation.

The 2012 plan has now been used in the 2012 and 2014 elections, but it is to be replaced this year by a new map drafted by the three-judge federal court after it had struck down the 2012 plan for District 3 as the result of a racial gerrymander, and after the legislature failed in an effort to draw up a new plan on its own.

The 2012 plan was composed by the legislature with the aim, among others, of preserving the partisan make-up of the state delegation — eight Republicans and three Democrats.  The new plan, however, would result in the likely loss this year of one and possibly two Republican seats to Democrats, because of the addition of black voters in those two districts.

The new plan, the challengers also argued, would affect not only District 3 but also four surrounding districts, and would result in the shifting of more than 1.1 million voters from one district into a new one.

The challengers’ argument about potential chaos and confusion in this year’s primary and general elections was based on the prospect that the 2012 plan of the legislature might actually gain the Supreme Court’s approval in the Personhuballah case in the midst of this year’s election cycle in Virginia.  If the 2012 plan were to be upheld, that would automatically displace the lower court’s new plan.

Actually, this year’s election cycle is already underway in Virginia, as candidates began collecting signatures for nomination for the primary election on January 2, and they must qualify for that ballot by March 31.  Federal law requires the state to mail absentee ballots by April 30 to military members serving abroad, and others who will be voting from overseas.

With a Supreme Court hearing set for March 21, the challengers asserted, there may not be a decision on the legality of the 2012 plan before the time necessary to prepare for the June 14 primary, requiring that balloting to be postponed.  The stay application also suggested that the timing of the Court’s ruling might even force a delay of the general election for the House seats, requiring Virginia to hold a presidential election on November 8 and a congressional election on a later date.

The two Virginia voters who had successfully challenged the 2012 map as a racial gerrymander, and the State Board of Elections, urged the Court to deny the postponement.  They argued that the primary election should now be allowed to go forward on June 14 under the newly drawn plan of the lower court.  If that plan were not used this year, they contended, it could mean that the 2012 plan could not be replaced by a valid plan until the 2018 elections.  The opponents also argued that the challengers had little chance of getting the 2012 plan upheld by the Justices.

The challengers initially filed their stay request with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., who handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area — the Fourth Circuit — that includes Virginia.  The Chief Justice passed on the request to the full Court, leading to Monday’s unexplained denial of the postponement.  Thus, the lower court’s new plan now will be used for the primary and general elections for House seats in Virginia this year.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, No delay of new Virginia federal districting map, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 2, 2016, 12:33 PM),