Nearly two years ago, a federal court struck down Virginia’s congressional maps, finding that state lawmakers engaged in an unconstitutional racial gerrymander when they packed tens of thousands of African-American voters into the already strongly Democratic district represented by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) — thus effectively diluting the impact of black voters in the state. In 2012, the year of the last presidential race, the state’s gerrymandered maps allowed Republicans to capture 8 of the state’s 11 congressional seats, despite the fact that President Obama won the state by 3 points.
On Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal brought by three Republican members of Congress who hoped to maintain the old maps. Though the Court’s decision in Wittman v. Personhuballah expresses no view on the merits of the case, it effectively allows the lower court’s order to stand.
That’s good news for Democrats, but also probably not earth-shattering news. In January, the lower court drew new maps for the state that corrects the racial gerrymander in Scott’s district by redrawing that district and a few that surround it. The primary impact of these new maps will be felt in the state’s fourth congressional district, currently represented by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA).
According to Forbes’ attorneys, this district will be “completely transform[ed] from a 48% Democratic district into a safe 60% Democratic district.” So that almost certainly means an additional Democratic member of Congress under the new maps.
Virginia itself, which has a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general, chose not to appeal the lower court’s order, which is why the appeal to the Supreme Court was brought by three members of Congress. Forbes’ counsel told the justices that he intended to run for re-election in a different district, and this formed the basis of the justices’ unanimous decision that Forbes could not pursue this appeal. Because he would no longer run for office in the most impacted district, the justices explained, “we do not see how any injury that Forbes might have suffered ‘is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.’”
The Court also held that two other lawmakers, Reps. Robert Wittman (R-VA) and David Brat (R-VA), could not pursue their appeal because they failed to cite evidence in the record showing that they were more likely to lose their upcoming races under the new maps.
So chalk up a small victory for Democrats that will make it marginally easier for them to take back the House of Representatives — a task that remains quite daunting due to unfavorable maps in many key states.
It is unlikely, however, that this decision will do much to deter future gerrymanders. The state drew unconstitutionally gerrymandered maps, and yet it still got to run two entire elections under those maps. If it takes courts this long to respond to illegal gerrymanders, lawmakers still have a strong incentive to keep drawing unconstitutional maps.