The Supreme Court on Monday takes up a long-running political fight about whether Virginia lawmakers redrew the state’s congressional map to protect the commonwealth’s lone African American congressman — or to make sure he was not joined by a second. The court will consider whether Republican lawmakers packed African American voters into Democratic Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott’s district to comply with the Voting Rights Act or to make surrounding districts more hospitable to white candidates. A lower court ruled against the legislature last year, and the judges then created a second district designed for a black candidate. Voters in the state’s congressional primary go to the polls in June — about when the justices would seem likely to rule on this new plan. The case presents what has become familiar litigation over how states divide up their residents into congressional districts, which is essential to the country’s politics and crucial to political parties. But state lawmakers charged with the task compare it to walking a tightrope, or crossing a minefield, or preparing a meal for Goldilocks.
Under the Supreme Court’s somewhat hazy guidance, state lawmakers must consider the race of those who populate each district to ensure minorities have a fair shot at being represented. But lawmakers fail if they let race become the predominate issue in drawing the lines.
“You can’t let the porridge be too hot, you can’t let the porridge be too cold,” said former Virginia delegate Bill Janis (R-Glen Allen), who devised the commonwealth’s congressional map. “But they won’t tell us what temperature the porridge has to be.”
The Supreme Court will take another shot at that in the Virginia case. A panel of federal judges said the commonwealth’s plan veered from partisan gerrymandering aimed at protecting incumbents — for which the Supreme Court has shown a high tolerance — into racial gerrymandering, which the Constitution forbids.
In a sense, said Nathaniel Persily, an election-law expert at Stanford Law School, “the Voting Rights Act is on a collision course with the Constitution.”