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Justices dismiss appeal in Virginia racial gerrymandering case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a challenge to the voting map for Virginia’s House of Delegates, saying that state lawmakers were not entitled to appeal a ruling striking down parts of the map on race-discrimination grounds. The Supreme Court’s action is likely to help Democrats in the 2020 election.

The vote was 5-4, and it scrambled some of the court’s usual alliances. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch were in the majority, and Justice Stephen Breyer was among the dissenters.

The case, Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, No. 18-281, arose from a squabble among state officials. The state’s attorney general, a Democrat, decided not to appeal the ruling striking down the voting maps. The state’s House of Delegates, controlled by Republicans, filed its own appeal.

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Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the House was not authorized to pursue the appeal on behalf of the state and had not suffered the sort of direct injury that would give it standing to sue in its own right.

“Virginia, had it so chosen, could have authorized the House to litigate on the state’s behalf, either generally or in a defined class of cases,” she wrote. “But the choice belongs to Virginia, and the House’s argument that it has authority to represent the state’s interests is foreclosed by the state’s contrary decision.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also joined the majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the House had suffered an injury and therefore could sue. “It is,” he wrote, “precisely because of the connections between the way districts are drawn, the composition of a legislature and the things that a legislature does that so much effort is invested in drawing, contesting and defending districting plans.”

“Does a string quartet have an interest in the identity of its cellist?” he asked. “Does a basketball team have an interest in the identity of its point guard?”

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Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh also joined the dissent.

The case concerned 11 voting districts drawn after the 2010 census, each with at least a 55% population of black residents of voting age. Democratic voters in those districts sued, saying that lawmakers had run afoul of the Constitution by packing too many black voters into the districts, diminishing their voting power.

The decision comes as all 140 seats in Virginia’s legislature are on the ballot this year, and partisan control lies on a razor’s edge. Republicans hold two-seat majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates; they have controlled the lower chamber since 2000.

After a much stronger than expected showing in the 2017 state elections, Democrats saw a chance to retake the General Assembly for the first time since 1995 — on the eve of the next round of redistricting. But a series of scandals involving the state’s three statewide leaders, all Democrats, threatened those ambitions. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both faced condemnation for appearing in blackface in their younger years, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault.

Kirk Cox, the speaker and a Republican, alluded to these problems in his reaction to Monday’s ruling.

“We are confident that voters will opt for the leadership and results we have delivered over chaos, embarrassment and unchecked Democratic control of state government,” he said in a statement.

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Herring said he welcomed the ruling. “This is a big win for democracy in Virginia,” he said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts, but the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts.”

Monday’s decision was the Supreme Court’s second ruling in the case. In 2017, the justices instructed a three-judge U.S. District Court to take a new look at whether racial consideration had played too large a role in drawing the legislative map for the House of Delegates.

The district court, which had initially upheld the districts, struck them down in 2018.

The Supreme Court has called for very close scrutiny of a state’s actions when race was shown to be the predominant reason in creating legislative districts. (It has, by contrast, so far left open the separate question of whether extreme partisan gerrymandering, in which the political party in power draws maps to give an advantage to its candidates, can ever cross a constitutional line. The court is expected to address that question this month.)