Va. leaders spar over high court’s ruling on House district lines

WASHINGTON — After the U.S. Supreme Court revived a race-based challenge to Virginia’s legislative lines, House Republican leaders and Gov. Terry McAuliffe traded shots Thursday over what should happen next.

Republican House Speaker Bill Howell, who represents Virginia’s 28th District, said the ruling was only a slight setback, and he is confident that the House district lines drawn after the 2010 census will be upheld when a U.S. District Court panel reviews the map under the new Supreme Court standard.

The justices found that it could be legal to target a set number for the black voting age population in a district, as long as lawmakers had a legitimate reason like compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

The Democratic lawyer who argued the case, and other officials like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had called Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling a significant victory, because 11 of 12 challenged districts will get a new lower court review.

The lawyer for the House of Delegates said the Supreme Court allowing for districts to be drawn based on a specific proportion of minority voters means the leading argument against the lines no longer applies.

“We’re really quite confident of victory … in the District Court,” Mark Braden said.

McAuliffe sent Howell and House Majority Leader Kirk Cox a letter asking them to drop their defense of the legislative map. He suggested he could call a special session to redraw the lines or implement nonpartisan redistricting.

“I really do find this letter fairly hypocritical, [and] it’s entirely premature,” Howell said on a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

In the session that ended Saturday, a House committee killed proposals for nonpartisan redistricting that were backed by a number of Senate Republicans.

Del. Chris Jones, a Republican representing the 76th District, said nonpartisan redistricting would not cut down on legal battles, because there could be lawsuits over whether the new maps violate bans on lines drawn for political reasons.

“The responsibility lies with the legislature; that’s where it should lie,” Jones said.

Howell and other Republican leaders said that even if the lower court ruled against them, they do not expect that any changes to the legislative map would impact this year’s elections. Every House of Delegates seat is on the ballot in November, alongside the statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

If the court ordered changes, they might apply to only the 2019 elections, because the lines are scheduled to be redrawn in 2021 after the 2020 census.

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