The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision upholding 11 challenged legislative districts shows just how high a bar opponents of gerrymandering need to clear. The anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021 brought the case, arguing that the 11 districts violated the state’s constitutional requirement that districts must be compact. It brought in experts who testified that the districts failed to meet various statistical tests for compactness. For instance, Michael McDonald argued that reducing the compactness of an ideally compact district by more than 50 percent in order to meet other considerations not required by the Virginia Constitution meant that those latter considerations predominated over compactness — and any such predomination was unconstitutional.
Lawyers for Attorney General Mark Herring and the Republican majority in the House of Delegates argued that legislators considered compactness in their redistricting maps, and argued that there is no single way to decide what degree of compactness should suffice.
In his opinion, Justice Bernard Goodwyn all but throws One-Virginia2021’s case out of court. He notes that precedent requires the courts to give “deference and wide discretion in determining compactness.” Courts can intervene only when districts show a “grave, palpable, and unreasonable deviation” from constitutional requirements. The government only has to present “some evidence of reasonableness” — and if it does, “the legislative action must be sustained.”
Moreover, Goodwyn points out, the test of compactness the challengers proposed “is not found in our Constitution,” nor does it have “any precedents in Virginia law” — and, for that matter, it is “novel and unproven” and it relies on measurements that lack “universally accepted meaning.”
Finally, Goodwyn notes that the test presumes districts should be as compact as possible — but that’s not what the Virginia Constitution says. It requires only that they be compact.