WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear an appeal by Virginia Republicans who are trying to preserve state legislative districts that have been struck down by a lower court as racially discriminatory.
The case involves 11 districts in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democratic voters accuse Republicans, who hold the majority, of packing black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts whiter and more Republican.
A three-judge federal court in Virginia ruled 2-1 in June in favor of the Democratic voters and has appointed a redistricting expert to draw a new legislative map with a Dec. 7 deadline. Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House, said he is weighing whether to ask the lower court to delay the issuance of a new map until after the Supreme Court rules.
Arguments probably will take place in late February, with a ruling likely by late June. The next round of elections for the state House is 2019, and candidates would normally have to register in the spring and run in primaries in the summer.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s office and House Democratic leader David Toscano did not immediately return requests for comment. Marc Elias, a lawyer representing the voters, predicted on Twitter that the justices would rule in his clients’ favor.
The Supreme Court already has ruled once in the case. Last year, the justices voted 7-1 to throw out an earlier ruling that had upheld the challenged districts.
When the lower court got the case back, it concluded that the 11 districts violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
“Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to this constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin,” Judges Barbara Milano Keenan and Arenda L. Wright Allen wrote in their majority opinion. Judge Robert Payne dissented, saying he would have upheld the districts.
In addition to reviewing the lower court ruling, the justices said they also would weigh whether Cox and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates even have a right to bring their appeal. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, had urged the court not to hear the case at all. He said Virginia law makes clear that the state’s elected attorney general has the authority to speak for the state in federal court.
Associated Press writer Alan Suderman contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.