On Friday, the Supreme Court effectively disqualified all three Republican nominees to serve as special master over the redistricting process because of their conflicts of interest and partisan ties. Specifically, the Court noted that the Republican Caucuses had not advised the Court that one nominee had received a $20,000 payment from the Senate Republican Caucus two months ago and had an express conflict. The other two nominees were unsuitable as well. A second nominee received $5,000 per month from the Republican National Committee. The third Republican nominee has participated in putting together some of the most notorious, court-rejected and illegal racial gerrymanders in American history and lacked credibility according to a federal judge.
The Court ordered the Republican Caucuses to submit three new nominees by Nov. 17. One Democratic nominee indicated he did not want to serve in this process so the Court ordered the Democrats to submit an additional name.
Once the Supreme Court announces the two special masters for the process, the special masters are required to produce maps within 30 days for the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate and Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.
At this point, it is not clear how much public comment will be allowed either before or after the maps are published. The Senate Democratic Caucus has proposed that the Court hold one public hearing before the maps are drawn to consider legal questions and four regional hearings after the maps are published so that the public can provide comments.
There are several legal points in dispute which resulted in the stalemate at the Virginia Redistricting Commission. First, Virginia law requires districts to be drawn in a way that does not “unduly favor” any political party. Notwithstanding the fact that the last election was decided by 70,000 votes of 3.6 million cast, Virginia has been trending in the Democratic direction in recent years. The Republican caucuses insist that maps be drawn to give either party an equal chance of controlling a chamber. Democrats argue this would require a partisan gerrymander and by definition would “unduly benefit” the Republican party.
Second, current law requires maps to be drawn giving consideration to “communities of interest.” There are questions about the exact legal standard to determine what a community of interest is for purposes of creating district boundaries. There are also questions regarding the relative weight masters should give to other variables such as compactness, continuity, jurisdiction splits and especially racial composition. Most districts in Northern Virginia are not majority white, including the 36th Senate District. Due to ambiguity in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, there is a lack of clarity regarding the masters’ responsibility to maximize majority non-white districts.
Redistricting is a fundamental process that will determine who represents you for the next 10 years in the state Senate, House of Delegates and the United States Congress. The new districts will have a significant impact on the policies adopted in this state and country for the next decade. It is critical that Virginia conduct this process in a fair and transparent fashion and I am confident, especially with the Virginia Supreme Court’s recent actions, that the special masters will try to be fair.
However, the special masters will not know all of Virginia well or the nuances of our communities. I strongly believe that even though this process has moved to the courts, the public should have a clearly defined role and provide input. However, understandably, I have found most people who do not follow this every day need to see a map before they can comment. In the coming weeks, there are likely to be proposed maps and opportunities for comment. I encourage you to participate. The Supreme Court has ordered that anyone wishing to comment can send an email to Redistricting@vacourts.gov.
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