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Opinion analysis: Racial gerrymandering case ends

Without further clarifying when state legislatures make too much use of race in drawing new election district maps, the Supreme Court on Monday ended Virginia Republican pleas to revive a 2012 plan — no longer in effect — for the state’s eleven congressional districts.  The Court, in a brief opinion in Wittman v. Personhuballah, ruled that none of the remaining GOP challengers had the right to sue because they could not show that they would be harmed politically.

A three-judge federal district court has twice ruled that the 2012 redistricting focused too heavily on racial factors in placing many black voters in the plan for District 3 — the one long represented by the state’s only black member of the House, Rep. Bobby Scott.  When the state legislature could not agree to devise a new plan under court order, the district court adopted one on its own, and that is the one that is being used in this year’s elections for Virginia members of the House.  The Supreme Court in early February refused to block the new map from going into effect for this year, even though the Justices still had the 2012 plan under review.

Although ten GOP members of the Virginia delegation had originally gone to court to try to save the 2012 plan, when the case on Monday finally reached the end of its two-year run before the Supreme Court, the Justices found that only two remained: Rep. Robert Wittman, who represents District 1, and Rep. David Brat, representing District 7.

Although the racial gerrymandering ruling by the district court had applied only to District 3, all of the Republican challengers contended that any plan other than the 2012 maps would jeopardize their election chances because Democrats would be, or were, moved into their districts in greater numbers.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote the six-page opinion for a unanimous Court, said that the Justices had pored over the record in the case, and could not find evidence that either Rep. Wittman or Rep. Brat would suffer adversely at the polls under the plan devised by the district court for use this election year.

The Breyer opinion did not spell out what kind of harms the lawmakers would have had to bring out to have a right to pursue their claim.  Under the Constitution’s Article III, actual injury is necessary to justify filing a lawsuit in federal court, since only genuine “cases or controversies,” with something real at stake, may be decided by federal courts.

The Court had given the GOP challengers two opportunities to show that their political fortunes would be lessened if the 2012 plan were not reinstated, and apparently found neither response persuasive.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Racial gerrymandering case ends, SCOTUSblog (May. 23, 2016, 12:47 PM),