How much will redistricting legal battle cost Virginians?

By: - August 17, 2018 7:02 am

Capitol Square from the air. Photo by Ned Oliver.

There’s one thing about Virginia’s redistricting saga that all sides know: It’s going to be expensive.

But it’s possible the legal bill won’t be as high as Democrats have claimed or as low as Republicans have said.

Attorney General Mark Herring filed suit last week in U.S. District Court to reduce the amount of money the state has to pay to a high-powered Washington, D.C. law firm involved in the 2014 challenge of a dozen House of Delegates districts that were drawn by the legislature in 2011. Herring also asked the court to let the state to pay once the case is finished.

Since the state lost the case — a panel of federal judges ruled the General Assembly racially gerrymandered 11 of the districts — plaintiffs are entitled to collect legal fees from Virginia.

Republicans have said redistricting has been a $4.5 million legal battle. The party appears to be citing the amount the House of Delegates has paid since 2015 for keeping lawyers on the case.

Democrats have used a more than $9 million figure — the $4.5 million plus $3.9 million in the plaintiffs’ legal costs plus Herring’s own expenses of nearly $900,000 — to put pressure on House Republicans to move faster.

But if the court agrees with Herring, the state is likely looking at a total bill closer to $7.3 million.

The total cost could still increase. Republicans filed an appeal in early July, meaning the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The enormous costs associated with this case are yet another reason why it’s time to put an end to the court proceedings and begin drawing fair, constitutional districts,” Charlotte Gomer, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office wrote in an email.

Law firm Perkins Coie, based in Washington D.C. and a favorite of the Democratic Party of Virginia, wants to recover nearly $4 million from the state

But the state only wants to pay $2.1 million, according to the suit Herring’s office filed.

The law firm’s documentation of hours worked is “vague,” the lawsuit says, and it’s charging hourly rates that are appropriate for Seattle and D.C. — where most of the firm’s lawyers are based — but not for Richmond.

Virginia had the same problem with a different redistricting case Perkins Coie handled in 2013 involving Virginia’s 3rd congressional district in Hampton Roads, Herring’s office said.

“Their fee petition here is infected with the same errors that this court highlighted in those prior decisions,” the suit about legal fees stated.

The state referred back to the court’s decision in the 2013 case — in which the congressional district was also ruled to be racially gerrymandered — to make the argument that Perkins Coie’s charges in the current redistricting case were too high.

Perkins Coie filed the suit in 2013 for three voters in the 3rd District. That case was decided by the U.S District Court, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and sent back to District Court. The lower court required the General Assembly to redraw the district.

The legislature missed the deadline to make a new map, so the courts did it for them.

Perkins Coie filed suit against the state again in 2014 on behalf of 12 voters who claimed the legislature purposefully created 12 House of Delegates districts with mostly black voters during the regular redistricting in 2011. The suit was backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, though those maps were supported by both parties at the time they were drawn.

The map held up in court until 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to reconsider its initial opinion. The Supreme Court said the lower court didn’t use the correct legal standard to make its decision.

The lower court decided in June that the 11 districts in question were racially gerrymandered and gave the state until Oct. 30 to redraw the districts.

Democrats have asked Republicans to reconvene in Richmond to work on a new map. The court has asked the legislature to tell it by Aug. 24 if and when the state intends to start.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.