- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia legislative boundaries being challenged by a redistricting advocacy group were approved with bipartisan support and are constitutionally sound, an attorney for the Republican-controlled House of Delegates said Monday during the opening of a trial over the 2011 electoral map.

The lawsuit was brought by OneVirginia2021, a redistricting advocacy group, which says lawmakers during the 2011 redistricting process violated the requirement that election districts must be compact. The group is challenging 11 Virginia House and Senate districts, which are currently held by both Democrats and Republicans.

E. Mark Braden, a lawyer for the House of Delegates, told Judge W. Reilly Marchant that the boundaries approved in 2011 are just as compact or more compact that those previously approved by the courts. Lawmakers used virtually the same criteria they did when they redrew the lines in 2001 and 88 out of 100 members in the House approved the plan, Braden said.

“This is not a partisan gerrymander,” Braden said.

Another lawsuit challenging the 2011 lines is pending in federal court. That lawsuit accuses lawmakers of illegally packing black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts whiter and more Republican. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out a ruling in that case that upheld 11 different districts and ordered the lower court to re-examine the boundaries.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has asked Republican lawmakers to drop their legal defense of those district lines in light of the Supreme Court ruling. But Republicans have pledged to continue defending the electoral map in court.

OneVirginia2021 argues that lawmakers ignored the requirement that districts be compact while drawing the challenged boundaries in an effort to “protect incumbents and gain partisan advantage.” The group has proposed a way to measure whether a district is constitutionally compact that it wants to force lawmakers to use, but the state has pushed back on that plan.

“We believe it is a formula that the Legislature in the future will welcome,” Wyatt Durrette Jr., an attorney for OneVirginia2021, told the judge on Monday.

The trial could extend through Thursday. If OneVirginia2021 wins the case, Virginia’s electoral map could be redrawn.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at https://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Read more of her work at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.

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