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Supreme Court sends Virginia House of Delegates Redistricting Back to Lower Court

Well, this one’s a little confusing.

The Supreme Court ruled today on Virginia’s House of Delegates redistricting [1], specifically on 12 House districts that have been challenged to have been drawn unfairly. The ruling, at times unanimous and at times dissenting, can be a tad confusing, and indeed, both sides are claiming victory here.

The plaintiffs are welcoming the case continuing on, as the Supreme Court has ruled that the lower court used an improper legal standing in upholding all 12 districts. SCOTUS has ruled that the lower court ruling in 1 of the districts was correct, and affirmed that decision. However, they’ve ruled the other 11 were improperly affirmed, and have redirected the case back to the lower court. The plaintiffs feel with a different legal standard applied, the lower courts will then find the districts unconstitutional [2].

“I am extremely confident that when this is examined again by the trial court using the appropriate standard, the challenged districts will be struck down as unconstitutional,” Marc E. Elias, a Democratic lawyer who brought the redistricting challenge on behalf of a group of African-American voters, said in an interview.

Now, it’s important to note that the Supreme Court did not rule the existing districts unconstitutional. They did not order them redrawn, or throw them out entirely. This is where the Virginia House of Delegates claim to victory comes in.

The districts will only go back to the lower court for ruling, with the lower court directed to apply a different legal standard. Speaker Howell told the RTD [2]:

“The Supreme Court declined the plaintiffs’ request to find that the districts are unconstitutional,” Howell said. “The Supreme Court overruled the way in which the district court analyzed the case. We have read the court’s opinion and are quite confident that we will win when we go back to the district court.”

So what does this mean for November?

Currently, not much of anything.

The lower court will need to rehear the case. At best, any decision would come in the summer or early autumn, certainly not an appropriate time to be redrawing any lines, if the case is decided in the plaintiff’s favor. Minority Leader Toscano commented that they looked forward to redrawing lines, but that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case based off of the SCOTUS ruling. If anything, any redrawing may wait until next year, after the 2017 Delegates elections.

This also is unlikely to be a seismic shift in redistricting. The court has shown a reluctance to interfere or make drastic changes to districts. In making these 11 districts more competitive, precincts from others will be adjusted, but those adjustments in precedence will not be ground shifting. It’s a near impossibility that any shift in lines will change the balance of power in the House of Delegates, though more likely that a handful of seats will become more competitive. There is also a chance that these 11 districts may in becoming more competitive actually solidify the Republican majority in the House, depending on how the lines are adjusted.

So certainly optimism for both sides, but given the looming nature of this court decision, it certainly appears to favor Virginia and House Republicans over the plaintiffs.

More analysis to come.