- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2012

RICHMOND — More than nine months after a congressional redistricting map was introduced in the General Assembly, a plan has finally cleared the House and the Senate, but legislators insist the matter is still far from settled.

The state Senate recently muscled through a House-drawn map with new lines for the state’s 11 congressional districts on a 20-19 vote — one of the GOP’s first displays of the party’s newfound power in Richmond.

The map, which largely shores up the existing districts of the state’s incumbents and likely preserves Republicans’ 8-3 majority, has sped through the 2012 assembly after the House and Senate were locked in a months-long stalemate over the matter last year.

The plan received input from all 11 of the state’s incumbents, and U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, hailed the state Senate’s action after the vote.

“This legislation was the only plan presented which enjoyed both bipartisan and biracial support,” he said. “It is a unity plan that represents compromise by both parties and enjoys broad community support.”

Indeed, nine House Democrats, including members of the black caucus, supported the bill, though it passed the Senate on a party-line vote.

Still, Sen. Mamie E. Locke, Hampton Democrat and sponsor of a Senate redistricting map that created a second minority-influence district in the state, said the plan “clearly is designed to protect incumbents.”

“It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” she said.

Two pending lawsuits and the possibility of further litigation could hold up its final adoption.

The suits — one filed in federal court and one in state court — contend that the assembly did not fulfill its constitutional obligations because the plan was not approved in 2011.

Virginia is also one of a handful of states, most of them in the South, that must “pre-clear” redistricting plans with the Justice Department because of a history of racial discrimination at the polls. The process could take as long as 60 days, but may be accelerated. Candidates running for Congress must file by March 29, and the state’s primary is scheduled for June 12.

“Federal courts may be amenable to hearing those suits,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law school professor. “There may be less reluctance at the federal level because federal judges are more accustomed to seeing this kind of legislation.”

“But again, there’s no time,” he added.

Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, agrees the issue appears far from resolved.

“I don’t think anything’s settled,” he said. “We’re going to challenge it in court. …Obviously, we don’t have the votes to stop it here.”

“As to whether or not what we did … had any legal validation, that’s the first question,” he continued.

Virginia’s attorney general’s office has concluded that the Constitution does not implicitly bar redistricting from occurring in non-census years.

Both sides also contend their plan does a better job of preserving the strength of minority voters, a requirement under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“We still have miles to go before we sleep on this issue,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, referring to the federal pre-clearance period.

The plan increases the black voting-age population in Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott’s 3rd Congressional District — the state’s sole majority-minority district — from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent, leading to Democratic accusations that the map is “packing” the district with black voters.

Republicans have disputed that charge.

“This plan is one that protects communities of interest and the core of existing districts so that citizens will know who their congressman is,” said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican and chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Still, as Mr. Tobias indicated, lawsuits involving the Voting Rights Act are nothing new. Texas’s new legislative maps were challenged in court amid allegations they diluted the voting strength of the Hispanic population. The Supreme Court said last week that maps drawn by a three-judge panel deviated too much from those approved by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

The maps were to be used on an interim basis as a panel heard challenges on the plan, but that plan appears quashed by the Supreme Court’s Friday opinion.

“It may be we end up like Texas, where people sit and not know what their districts are,” Mr. Petersen said. “And that’s a shame.”

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