WASHINGTON—Election politics and race are back at the Supreme Court this spring, as first one, and now two, states fight to get the justices to reverse lower-court decisions that threw out the legislative district lines adopted by state lawmakers, decisions holding that those maps included gerrymandered districts that violate the law.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. Plaintiffs in both of these lawsuits—one case from Virginia, another from North Carolina—argue that the legislative maps adopted by both those two states violate part of the VRA and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs argue that these districts attempt to pack black voters as densely as possible into several districts that lawmakers would consider Democratic districts to increase the odds that Republicans will continue to hold the surrounding legislative seats.
VRA lawsuits are each heard by a three-judge trial court, comprised of two federal district judges, led by one federal circuit judge from the court of appeals. The losing party may then appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has held that there is a “presumption of good faith that must be accorded legislative enactments,” and consequently, courts must “exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims that a State has drawn district lines on the basis of race.”
Nonetheless, two of the three judges in Virginia ruled that parts of the Old Dominion’s map are illegal. When lawmakers did not enact a new map, the three-judge court drew one for them, and ordered Virginia to follow it. Lawyers representing Virginia congressmen and elected officials petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the lower court’s ruling until full arguments could be heard, but the justices declined to do so without comment.
The Court took the case, Wittman v. Personhuballah, which will be heard on March 21, 2016. The defendants and congressmen argue that the lines were drawn based on political considerations that are entirely proper (such as taking into account communities of common interest), and not primarily upon race. But it is not clear when a decision will come down, and Virginia’s primary elections are in May. A decision on the case might not be issued until the end of June.
The court-imposed map poses challenges for some lawmakers in the meantime (or permanently, if the Supreme Court leaves it in place). Tea Party favorite David Brat—who ousted former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—faces a tough reelection contest under the new map.
Meanwhile, on February 5, another three-judge court invalidated part of North Carolina’s districting map by a 2-1 vote. The defendants promise to appeal, but nothing has yet been filed at the Supreme Court. In the meantime, North Carolina will be left with the same uncertainty as Virginia.
Ken Klukowski is legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.