WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday tossed out an appeal in a high-profile racial gerrymandering case that challenged Virginia’s redrawn legislative districts.
The high court ruled 5-4 that Virginia’s Republican-led House of Delegates did not have legal standing to pursue the appeal, a decision that allowed the justices to avoid some of the thornier legal issues at the heart of the case.
The ruling marks a victory for Democrats in the state, who stand to gain in this fall’s legislative elections from the newly drawn districts. Republicans hold thin majorities in both chambers and Democrats have an opportunity to take control of the General Assembly under a Democratic governor.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the court’s opinion Monday, finding that the House of Delegates “lacks standing to represent the State’s interests.”
Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic attorney general, made the case that his office — not the House — is responsible for representing the state in court. Herring didn’t appeal a lower court ruling that 11 House districts in Virginia had been racially gerrymandered.
“Under Virginia law, authority and responsibility for representing the State’s interests in civil litigation rest exclusively with the State’s Attorney General,” the justices wrote. Ginsburg was joined in the majority opinion by Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.
“This SCOTUS decision is a major win for voting rights and civil rights in our commonwealth,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring said in a statement.
“Constitutional maps are more important than the status quo, and they are more important than one party’s entrenched political power,” they added. “House Republicans have spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending racial gerrymandering in a protracted legal battle — a battle in which they lacked legal standing. Finally, Virginians in the affected districts have the assurance that they will vote in constitutional districts in this year’s election.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented in the case, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanagh. They argued that the Virginia House of Delegates does have standing in the appeal.
The ruling represents a defeat for House Republicans who saw their districts become bluer as a result of the new lines.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, attended the Supreme Court oral arguments earlier this year.
Cox told reporters then that he felt targeted by Democrats seeking to alter the district lines, but said he was prepared to run in either his old or his new district. “I’m very confident I can win my district.”
In a statement Monday, Cox said the court’s ruling “could have wholly been prevented had the Attorney General not once again declined to do his job and defend the law of the Commonwealth.”
He blasted the case as the work of “a shadowy organization funded by out-of-state interests” bent on overturning legislative maps that passed in 2011 “with an overwhelming majority.” The lawsuit challenging the maps was brought on behalf of voters by a law firm with deep Democratic ties.
“Regardless of this decision, we are prepared to defend and grow our majority in the House of Delegates,” Cox said, citing tax cuts, college tuition freezes and other GOP legislative results. “We have recruited a diverse slate of candidates that reflect the communities they seek to serve, including eight women and two African Americans. We are confident that voters will opt for the leadership and results we have delivered over chaos, embarrassment, and unchecked Democratic control of state government.”