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U.S. Supreme Court affirms court-ordered redistricting

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a court-ordered redistricting Monday that dramatically revised the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts in Hampton Roads.

The court ruled unanimously.

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Its opinion said the three members of Congress who appealed the redistricting, Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, and David Brat, R-Henrico, were unable to show they had been harmed by the new lines drawn by a court-appointed special master.

The three had to show they were harmed in order to have legal standing to challenge the redistricting. They had claimed they were harmed because the redistricting added Democratic voters to their districts, making re-election more difficult.

The redistricting reconfigured the 3rd District, which stretched from Norfolk to Richmond and is represented by Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Newport News, into a Hampton Roads district that includes Newport News and portions of Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Many of the new voters in the 3rd District came from the old 4th District, which Forbes has represented since 2001. In return, the redistricting added about 300,000 Richmond-area voters to the 4th District.

Forbes told the Supreme Court the redistricting forced him to run in the 2nd Congressional District.

He initially told the court if it overturned the redistricting he would abandon that effort and run in the 4th again. But after oral arguments this spring, Forbes' lawyer advised that he would continue to run in the 2nd no matter what the court decided.

"Given this letter, we do not see how any injury that Forbes might have suffered 'is likely to redressed by a favorable judicial decision,'" Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court, quoting language for a standard test the court uses to determine standing.

Wittman and Brat argued that they were hurt because "a portion of their 'base electorate'" would be replaced "with 'unfavorable Democratic voters,'" Breyer noted.

"Even assuming, without deciding, that this kind of injury is legally cognizable, Representatives Wittman and Brat have not identified record evidence establishing their alleged harm," he added.

The decision, by focusing on standing, leaves untouched the question of whether elected officials are harmed by changing the boundary lines of gerrymandered districts.

It also did not address the congressmen's challenge that lower federal courts were incorrect in finding that the Virginia General Assembly gerrymandered the 3rd District on racial grounds.

The issue with the old district was whether the General Assembly looked only at race in moving people from one district to another during its redistricting after the 2010 census.

"The legislative record here is replete with statements indicating that race was the legislature's paramount concern," a panel of three U.S. District Court judges ruled, in a 2-1 decision, in October 2014.

"Tellingly, the populations moved out of the 3rd Congressional District were predominantly white, while the populations moved into the district were predominantly African-American," it added.

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After the General Assembly refused to redraw the lines in response to that finding, the court-appointed special master drew new district lines earlier this year.

The effect is to reduce the minority population in Scott's district to about 45 percent from 56 percent. It raises the percentage in Forbes' district from 31 percent to roughly 40 percent. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Forbes described the change as a complete transformation, turning the district "from a 48 percent Democratic district into a safe 60 percent Democratic district."

The new map moved nearly 315,000 residents, including most of Richmond, all of Petersburg, Surry and Charles City counties and eastern Henrico County from the 3rd District, represented by Scott, the 4th District.

The 3rd District picked up voters in Newport News, Isle of Wight County, northern Suffolk and parts of northern Chesapeake. Most of Hampton will now be in the 3rd District, but the northern parts of the city will be in the 2nd District. Norfolk also will be split, roughly in half, between the two districts.

The General Assembly first drew a majority-minority Hampton Roads to Richmond district after the 1990 census, and Scott has represented it since 1993.

Forbes' spokeswoman, Hailey Sadler, said he would defer to the Virginia GOP delegation's dean, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, for comment.

Goodlatte said the decision "does not address the fundamentally flawed ruling of the divided three-judge court" since it dealt only with the question of standing.

"With the Court unanimously ruling that members of Congress do not have standing to appeal the lower court's decision, any uncertainty about the new district lines has been removed," Scott said.

State Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus and candidate for Congress in the new 4th District, said the decision would give Virginians a bigger voice in chosing members of Congress.

"It is also a victory because it is ridiculous to think that a congressman or any elected official has standing to bring a suit because he or she thinks he has a right to victory. The right to choose their elected officials belongs to the people and that is the most critical conclusion of this case," he said.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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