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Virginia Supreme Court rejects all three GOP nominees and one Democratic nominee to help redraw districts
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Virginia Supreme Court rejects all three GOP nominees and one Democratic nominee to help redraw districts

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Virginia Supreme Court, which is housed at Ninth and Franklin streets.

Co-chair Harris: "I think partisanship sort of seeped into the spirit of this commission"

A unanimous Virginia Supreme Court has rejected all three Republican nominees and one Democratic candidate to help the court redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts based on new census data.

The court on Friday directed GOP legislative leaders to submit the names of three or more new potential nominees and directed Democratic legislative leaders to submit the names of one or more additional potential nominees. The names are due to the court by 5 p.m. Monday.

Later Friday, Republican leaders wrote to the justices asking that the court “disqualify all three of the Democratic Caucus’s Special Master nominees,” saying “Each suffers from the same disqualifying conflicts of interest that led the Court to dispense with the Republican Caucus’s nominees.”

The court’s redistricting process quickly generated the same kind of partisan brawling that deadlocked the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission, with Democrats accusing Republicans of being overtly partisan in their submissions and Republicans making similar assertions about the Democrats’ nominees.

The justices will conduct redistricting, under a constitutional amendment the state’s voters passed last November. The duty of drawing the state’s political boundaries fell to the Supreme Court after the 16-member redistricting commission imploded, as partisanship and mistrust thwarted efforts to draw maps for the House of Delegates and the Senate, and then, Virginia’s congressional seats.

The court had asked that the majority and minority party leaders of both legislative chambers nominate by Nov. 1 three or more qualified people without conflicts of interest to serve as special masters to help with the redrawing. The court, by majority votes, will choose one nominee from the Democrats and one from the Republicans to help draw the maps. The candidates the court selects will serve as officers of the court and act in a “quasi-judicial capacity.”

“The Special Masters must be neutral and must not act as advocates or representatives of any political party,” the justices wrote on Friday.

In a letter to the court on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, wrote: “We urge the Court to reject the minority leaders’ nominees and direct them to resubmit new, unbiased nominees. We do not send this letter lightly, but these three nominees cannot lawfully serve and their mere nomination undermines public confidence in these critical, once-a-decade proceedings to redraw Virginia’s electoral maps.”

Saslaw complained that one of the Republican candidates, Thomas Bryan, was recently paid $20,000 by the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus. The court said Friday that Bryan had not initially disclosed his consultation for Senate Republicans on redistricting.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, wrote a letter informing the court that the House Democratic Caucus supported Saslaw’s position.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, responded Wednesday in a letter that called Saslaw’s request “appalling.”

“The requests made by Sen. [Richard] Saslaw are totally lacking in legal support and are an obvious partisan power grab intended to exert an undue amount of influence over this Court’s oversight of the 2021 redistricting process. They should be rejected on their face,” wrote Norment and Gilbert, who is in line to become the next speaker of the House.

On Friday, the justices acknowledged receiving the lists of nominees and the letters. The court noted that Bryan’s work as a redistricting consultant using 2020 data for the Virginia Senate Republicans “was the very subject matter which this Court is called upon to appoint Special Masters.”

The court said that while it was not questioning Bryan’s integrity, it believes his work for the Senate Republican caucus constitutes a conflict. The two-page order said the court “has concerns about the ability of the remaining Republican nominees to serve in the role of Special Master,” according to the criteria the court laid out on Friday.

“Accordingly, by unanimous order of the Court, the Republican leaders are directed to submit to the Clerk by 5 p.m. on November 15, 2021, the names of one or more additional nominees consistent with the criteria set forth,” states the order signed by Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons.

The court also disqualified one of the nominees submitted by Democrats, but it was not clear which one and for what specific reason.

“One of those nominees has asserted a condition or reservation that suggests to the Court he may not be willing to serve as Special Master in accordance” with the requirements calling for the two chosen map drawers — one nominated by Democrats, the other nominated by Republicans — to work together to come up with the maps.

Again, in a unanimous vote, the justices directed the Democrats — also by 5 p.m. Monday — to nominate one or more additional candidates.

The Republicans had nominated:

Bryan

  • , a former statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau who founded a demographic analysis consulting firm for bipartisan clients, including expert witness services in state and local redistricting cases;

Adam Kincaid

  • , previously the redistricting coordinator for the National Republican Congressional Committee and now the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust and Fair Lines America; and

Adam Foltz

  • , who served as the primary redistricting map drawer for the Wisconsin State Assembly Republican Caucus during the 2011-12 cycle, prepared Wisconsin’s defense against challenges to district maps and who is now a legislative analyst for the Texas Legislative Council and is working to draft new maps.

The Democrats had nominated:

Bernard N. Grofman

  • , a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, who served as special master to courts in drawing Virginia congressional districts in 2015 and the Virginia House of Delegates districts in 2018;

Nathaniel Persily

  • , a professor at the Stanford Law School who has served as a court-appointed special master for state legislative and congressional maps in other states; and

Bruce E. Cain

  • , a professor at the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University who served as a court-appointed special master to draw state legislative districts in Arizona in 2002 and has been a redistricting consultant to government agencies including the Attorney General of Maryland.

In their letter Friday, Norment and Gilbert asked the high court to reject the Democrats’ other two nominees. “Based on the lopsided political records of each Democratic Caucus nominee, it is beyond reasonable dispute that not one should be allowed to serve as Special Master. For that reason, we respectfully request their disqualification,” they wrote.

They contend in part that: Cain has served as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, and that since 2004 “it appears that he has contributed exclusively to Democratic politicians”; Grofman has published or contributed to several opinion pieces criticizing Republicans “while championing Democratic politicians”; and that Persily was hired in 2017 to draw election maps in North Carolina and “media reports stated bluntly that Mr. Persily’s [r]edrawn election maps would help Democrats.”

An overwhelming majority of House Democrats, including the House’s Black caucus, had strongly opposed the constitutional amendment that created the commission and shifted power away from the legislature and to the commission to draw the maps. One of their reasons for opposing the amendment was the provision that gave power over the maps to the Virginia Supreme Court in the event that the bipartisan commission of citizens and lawmakers deadlocked.

The Virginia Supreme Court is made up mostly of judges appointed by Republican leaders, a cause of concern among Democrats. Friday’s decision could be an early sign that the body doesn’t intend to operate in a partisan way.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who recently stepped down from the redistricting commission, tweeted on Friday: “Glad to see the GOPs initial attempt to inject hyper-partisan mapmakers into the process has been thwarted for the time being. It will take continued vigilance on the part of Democratic lawmakers and advocates to keep them honest going forward.”

fgreen@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6340

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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