By Lisa Soronen
If you were expecting the third redistricting case the U.S. Supreme Court decided this term to be a blockbuster … you will be disappointed.
Ignoring the merits of the case, the Supreme Court held unanimously in Wittman v. Personhuballah that three members of Congress from Virginia lacked “standing” to intervene in a lawsuit alleging that Virginia’s redistricting plan resulted in an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
One legislator ultimately told the court he would not be affected by its decision and the other two legislators failed to identify evidence indicating rejecting Virginia’s plan would harm them.
A redistricting plan amounts to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause if the legislature’s predominant consideration in drawing electoral boundaries was race and the plan fails strict scrutiny (it isn’t narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest).
When the Virginia legislature redrew congressional voting districts following the 2010 census, it increased the number of minority voters in District 3, its only majority-minority district. A federal district court twice concluded that Virginia’s plan amounted to an unconstitutional gerrymander.
Neither time did Virginia appeal but members of Congress intervened claiming that rejecting Virginia’s redistricting plan harmed their re-election prospects.
Courts only decide cases where the party (or intervenor) has been “injured in fact” and therefore has “standing.”
The court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, concluded that none of the three intervenors in this case have standing. Representative J. Randy Forbes (R) told the court in a letter after oral argument that he, practically speaking, would not be affected by the court’s decision as he would continue to run in District 2 rather than District 4, where he is currently serving, regardless.
According to the court, “Representatives Rob Wittman and Dave Brat claim that unless [Virginia’s redistricting] plan is reinstated, their districts will be flooded with Democratic voters and their chances of re-election will accordingly be reduced. But we have examined the briefs, looking for any evidence that an alternative to [Virginia’s redistricting] plan . . . will reduce the relevant intervenors’ chances of reelection, and have found none. The briefs focus on Congressional District 3 and Congressional District 4, districts with which Representatives Wittman and Brat are not associated.”
Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and writes frequently for the NCSL blog about the U.S. Supreme Court.