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Virginia Politicians Cannot Sue Over Redistricting, Supreme Court Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 24, 2016 3:57 PM

The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Virginia's court-imposed redistricting yesterday, ruling that three Virginia Congressmen could not show that they were harmed by the new plan. The ruling brings an end to a long-standing dispute over Virginia's congressional districting which arose after a federal district court ruled in 2012 that the state's redrawn congressional map relied too heavily on race, segregating black voters into already majority-African American district.

Representatives Randy Forbes, Robert Wittman, and David Brat, all Republicans, sought to challenge that ruling. But none of the Congress members were representatives of the district at issue and none of them could show how they would be harmed if the old plan was not reestablished, the Supreme Court determined in a short, unanimous decision written by Justice Brennan.

Virginia's Gerrymandering

Following the 2010 census, Virginia began the process of redrawing its congressional districts, a task that was handled by the state's General Assembly. The result was a majority-minority district, District 3, that jumped from Richmond to Norfolk, winding along the James River and encompassing many of the state's black voters.

A three-judge federal district court has twice invalidated that redistricting, determining that it placed too much emphasis on race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. It ordered the General Assembly to create a new plan and, when the state failed to act, brought in a special master to take over the task.

Virginia eventually stopped fighting the courts, but Representatives Forbes, Wittman, and Brat, did not, appealing all the way to the Supreme Court. But as the Supreme Court pointed out in an earlier order regrading oral arguments, none of the Congress members live in or represent the only district whose constitutionality is at issue. How could they show a judicially recognizable injury in order to have standing to sue?

Changing a Congressional District, but Not Yours

The Congress members' standing argument was somewhat straight forward: the district court's order to redraw the District 3 brings more Democrats into their home districts, harming their reelection prospects.

Forbes' claim to standing was representative. If the old districting is not reinstated, Forbes argued, his district would "completely transform from a 48 percent Democratic district into a safe 60 percent Democratic district." As a result, Forbes has already chosen to run in a new Congressional district.

At oral arguments, Forbes' lawyer claimed he would certainly return to his district should the old plan be reinstated. But he seems to have misspoke.

Shortly after, Forbes wrote the Supreme Court to say that he wouldn't return to his original district even if the old districting plan was reinstated. "Given this letter," the Court wrote, "we do not see how any injury that Forbes might have suffered 'is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.'"

Wittman and Brat fared no better. The two Congressmen, the Court said, could not provide any "record evidence establishing their alleged harm."

Despite claims that the new districting would flood districts with Democratic voters, the Court wrote, "we have examined the briefs, looking for any evidence that an alternative to the [previous plan] will reduce the relevant intervenors' chances of reelection, and have found none." Indeed, the Congress members' briefs didn't even focus on their own districts. "We need go no further."

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