Posted by Guest on June 19, 2019 in Blog

AAI staff and Spring 2019 interns participated in a rally at the Supreme Court on the day of oral arguments in the case.

On June 17, 2019, the Supreme Court dismissed the case Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, in which the Virginia House of Delegates tried to appeal a lower court decision which declared the 2011 Virginia House district maps were unconstitutional as a result of racial gerrymandering. 

This case dates back to 2014, when a group of Virginia voters alleged that the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates deliberately packed African American voters into 12 districts, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. This case went before the U.S. Supreme Court and, in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had used the wrong legal standard in its evaluation of claims of racial gerrymandering. Upholding one of the districts, the Supreme Court remanded the case to a lower court to review the districting in the other 11 districts. In 2018, a district court invalidated these 11 districts because race was a main factor to determine the districts. 

With 11 of the 12 districts invalidated, the Virginia House of Delegates appealed the decision to the Supreme Court; the Court agreed to consider not only the case, but also the preliminary question about whether the Virginia House of Delegates had standing to file this appeal with the Court. In the meantime, the districts were redrawn to ensure greater fairness, and were then used in the 2019 Virginia state primary elections while the Supreme Court was making its final decision.

In a 5-4 ruling, the majority opinion, represented by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, decided the Virginia House of Delegates did not have the legal standing to represent the entire state government in an appeal of the district court's decision. Furthermore, even if the House were a valid litigant, the representatives faced no injury due to redistricting because the seats did not belong to the representatives and the court could not address any injury which may have occurred. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined Justice Ginsberg in the majority decision, while Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Steven Breyer, and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

This ruling addressed one of two questions before the Court: whether the Virginia House of Delegates had judicial standing to appeal a court case on its own, and whether the lower court ruled correctly by invalidating the older House district maps drawn in 2011. Because the Court chose to only answer the preliminary question, the Court did not assess the merits of the lower court’s ruling. This decision also differs from previous racial gerrymandering cases, such as Abbott v. Perez. In the Abbott v. Perez case, the Court narrowly ruled that one district in Texas was a racial gerrymander, as opposed to a lower court finding the entire map unconstitutional. Because the Court avoided the question of the merits of racial gerrymandering in Virginia, it did not develop another precedent related to racial gerrymandering. Rather, the court developed precedent that one chamber of a bicameral legislature cannot challenge the drawing of state districts. Further, a single chamber lacks legal standing when the state’s constitution designates the executive branch as being vested with the power to represent the state.

Looking forward to the 2019 Virginia general elections, voters will decide the next House of Delegates with the current map, which does not minimize the power of minority voters. One analysis claims that six seats could shift with the new districts, allowing for representation that is more representative of the voters in each district. Crucially, the House of Delegates and State Senate elected in 2019 will also oversee the drawing new districts after the 2020 census. There are also grassroots efforts to amend the Virginia Constitution and remove the power to redraw districts from the legislature, instead allowing an independent commission to redraw districts. Currently, sixteen states use some form of commission to draw legislative districts. An independent commission would decrease the chances of gerrymandered districts in the future, ultimately better serving the state's voters.


This post was guest-authored by Maya Chamra, a 2019 Field intern with the Arab American Institute Foundation.