WASHINGTON — Virginians will elect members of the House of Delegates this year using a map seen as favorable to Democrats, according to a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The political boundaries are important because Republicans currently control the House with a 51-49 majority. Only four states are having legislative elections this year. Virginia is the only one where Democrats have a chance of flipping control of the House and Senate.
The high court’s 5-4 decision was perhaps telegraphed by the fact that the justices previously allowed election planning to go forward with the new map. Virginia held its primary last week, and the November general election will be the last time the state uses this map because legislative districts will need to be redrawn to account for results from the 2020 census.
The justices let stand a lower court decision putting the new map in place, saying the Republican-controlled state House did not have a right to represent the state’s interests in an appeal to the Supreme Court. The state could have decided to bring the case but did not, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.
“One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process,” she wrote. The four justices joining her were Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, a lineup that included conservatives and liberals. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh.
The case stemmed from a map drawn by Republican lawmakers in 2011, after the last census, and used in the four elections since. Democratic voters sued in 2014, accusing Republicans of packing black voters into certain districts to make surrounding ones whiter and more Republican.
A lower court ruled 2-1 last year that the previous map drawn by lawmakers improperly factored race into drawing 11 of the 100 House districts. After lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on a redistricting plan, the lower court chose a new map from a series of proposals submitted by a special master.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, called the ruling a “big win for democracy in Virginia.”
“It’s unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts,” he said in a statement.
The lawsuit challenging the original House lines was backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The group targets elections for governors and state legislators, court cases or ballot initiative to give Democrats more control during the next round of congressional redistricting after the 2020 Census.
“With a new, fair map in place, all Virginians will now — finally — have the opportunity this fall to elect a House of Delegates that actually represents the will of the people,” Holder said in a statement.
House Republicans said they are disappointed by the ruling and criticized the “shadowy organization funded by out-of-state interests” that funded the lawsuit. But Republicans said they still expect to maintain their majority based on their track record of “common sense” leadership.
“Today’s ruling from SCOTUS will make victory in November even sweeter,” the House GOP caucus tweeted, adding in a statement: “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.”
The case is Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, 18-281.
Associated Press writer Alan Suderman contributed from Richmond, Virginia.