Redistricting and the Virginia Supreme Court


The General Assembly’s Democratic majority inserted language in the budget this winter to give themselves a say in the event that redistricting authority falls to the seven state Supreme Court justices, many of whom were appointed when the legislature was controlled by Republicans.

The provision requires the Supreme Court to hire one mapmaker from each political party and insists that the two consultants “work together.”

Those two words take on added meaning now that the Redistricting Commission appears to have reached a partisan impasse on drawing state House and Senate districts. The eight Republicans and eight Democrats have been unable or unwilling to reconcile the competing plans offered by its two consultants, one Republican and one Democratic. 

The question is whether the Court will interpret the General Assembly’s instructions to insist that the two consultants it hires – known as “special masters” -- put aside their partisan differences and produce a single plan for their consideration.

Under a voter-approved constitutional amendment, the Court will be given the responsibility to draw state legislative districts if the Commission cannot come up with maps by October 24. That now appears the likely outcome, as the Commission has shifted its focus to congressional districts.

Earlier this year, the Court adopted rules and procedures in anticipation that it might be given the task of redrawing legislative boundaries to take into account population changes in the last decade. Here are the highlights:

  • Within a week after the commission's deadline, Democratic and Republican leaders of the General Assembly will provide the Court with the recommended names of at least three qualified special masters. By majority vote, the Justices will select one Republican and one Democratic special master. 
  • The special masters will have 30 days to provide the Court with plans, unless otherwise directed. “The special masters will assist the Court in the establishment of districts. The two special masters will work together to develop plans to be submitted to the Court for its consideration.”
  • The Division of Legislative Services will provide administrative assistance and the Redistricting Commission will provide records of all documents and meeting transcripts.

One question to be determined is how much opportunity the public will have to comment during the Court’s deliberations. Under the voter-approved constitution, the Redistricting Commission was required to hold all discussions in open meetings and provide ample public comment periods and meetings devoted entirely to public hearings.

Under its guidelines, the Court has said it will accept written public comments and may, in its sole discretion, hold public hearings. If hearings are held, they will be recorded and posted on the Court’s website.

Oct. 13, 2021

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