A federal court ruled Friday that Virginia legislators will have to redraw the state's congressional lines after misinterpreting Voting Rights Act requirements, but an attorney for the defendants said it's likely that they'll appeal to the Supreme Court.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled for the second time that legislators unnecessarily "packed" African-American voters into certain congressional districts, ostensibly to follow a requirement that minority voters maintain their control of certain districts—but also limiting their ability to affect other districts' elections.
The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that the Republican-controlled legislature had packed an excessive number of minorities into a single district, represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, when it drew the congressional map in 2012.
Now, the legislature will have until Sept. 1 to draw new congressional lines, which would likely undo some of the Republicans' advantage in the state's congressional delegation. Eight Virginia representatives are Republicans and three are Democrats. When Virginia last drew lines, Republicans controlled the entire legislative process, but Democrats would have a seat at the table this time in the form of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Scott's district is 56 percent African-American, and he has said African-American voters could still reelect him easily without forming such a substantial majority of the district. A healthy medium, he said, would allow minorities to elect their preferred candidates without being crammed into a single district to the point of racial gerrymandering.
The Republicans most threatened by this decision are Reps. Randy Forbes and Scott Rigell, whose districts are adjacent to Scott's. Scott's reliably Democratic district, where President Obama won 79 percent of the vote in 2012, stretches in a ribbon from Richmond to Norfolk. If some of its Democratic voters are cut out and put into Forbes's or Rigell's, Scott could still win reelection while one or both of those Republicans could face a more Democratic-leaning electorate.
The court had previously issued the same ruling, but an appeal was remanded back to the Virginia court from the U.S. Supreme Court after a separate case nullified details of its first ruling. But Friday's opinion confirms the court's initial decision.
Attorney Mike Carvin, who defended Virginia's current maps, called the ruling "fundamentally flawed" and said "it's safe to say we will" appeal to the Supreme Court.
In order to throw out the state's congressional map, Carvin said, the court needed to prove that race—not incumbent protection or a partisan advantage—was the primary factor in the redistricting efforts. The court found that Scott's district has an unnecessarily large majority of African-American voters, but did not find that the district was drawn along racial lines, Carvin said. The primary goal was to preserve the previous districts and protect incumbents, he said.
In its opinion, though, the court wrote that the focus on incumbent-protection doesn't rule out racial gerrymandering.
"Defendants and the dissent are inarguably correct that partisan political considerations, as well as a desire to protect incumbents, played a role in drawing district lines," the opinion says. "It would be remarkable if they did not. However in a 'mixed motive suit'—in which a state's conceded goal of 'produc[ing] majority-minority districts' is accompanied by 'other goals, particularly incumbency protection'—race can be a predominant factor in the drawing of a district without the districting revisions being 'purely race-based.'"
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.