Considering Virginia’s checkered approach to issues of openness and transparency, we probably should have expected that redrawing the 3rd Congressional District would be a process shrouded in secrecy. But the requirements included in a federal court order governing the participants in that effort, even by the commonwealth’s standards, are astounding. As readers know, the 3rd District has been the subject to a lengthy court battle over whether Republican lawmakers illegally packed it with minority voters in an effort to diminish their strength and limit their influence in neighboring districts. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has twice ruled the boundaries invalid, and ordered the General Assembly to redraw the district. However, a bit of deft legislative maneuvering in August threw the issue back to the courts. The District Court then selected Bernard Grofman, a professor of political science at the University of California Irvine, as a “special master” to draw new district boundaries. He is being assisted by three members of the General Assembly’s Division of Legislative Services.
Last week, the Daily Press reported that not only did the three state employees have to sign confidentiality oaths before they could participate, that all the materials being used to craft the new boundaries would be destroyed upon completion.
Naturally, none of the parties involved admitted to requesting such strict rules of secrecy, though all agreed to the provisions. The Attorney General’s Office, which has represented DLS in this case, said it was “standard for courts and special masters in these situations.”
We should point out the Virginia Freedom of Information Act includes an exemption for “working papers,” those documents and drafts used by public officials. The language allows those records to be withheld from release and would probably apply in this case.