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Virginia Supreme Court picks two experts to assist in redistricting; wants proposed maps in 30 days
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Virginia Supreme Court picks two experts to assist in redistricting; wants proposed maps in 30 days

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Chief Justice Donald Lemons

Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Lemons will likely quit the court in 2023, after reaching age 73.

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

An analyst for RealClearPolitics and a professor of political science were selected Friday by the Virginia Supreme Court to help redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district maps using the new census data.

The justices named Sean P. Trende, a senior elections analyst for the political website, and Bernard N. Grofman, with the University of California, Irvine, who has served as a redistricting special master in Virginia before.

Grofman served as special master to courts in redrawing Virginia congressional districts in 2015 and the Virginia House of Delegates districts in 2018. His 2015 congressional map turned the 4th District from a Republican stronghold into a Democratic-leaning district now represented by Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th.

They were directed to work together and within 30 days draw up proposed single redistricting maps for the Virginia Senate, the House of Delegates and for congressional districts.

The newly appointed experts and the court will pick up the task after Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission bogged down along partisan lines.

The court’s two-page appointment order noted that each was nominated by a different party, Trende by the legislature’s Republican leadership and Grofman by the Democrats. However, the court said the two will serve as officers of the court in a quasi-judicial capacity.

“Consequently, the Special Masters shall be neutral and shall not act as advocates or representatives of any political party,” the justices wrote.

“By accepting their appointment, the Special Masters warrant that they have no ‘conflicts of interest’ ... that preclude them from prudently exercising independent judgment, dispassionately following the Court’s instructions, or objectively applying the governing decision-making criteria.”

Democrats and Republicans have raised concerns about the other side’s appointee.

In addition to writing for RealClearPolitics, Trende is a nonresident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank that researches government, politics, economics and social welfare, according to Wikipedia.

Among other things, the Democratic Party of Virginia complained Friday about Trende’s association with what it called “a right wing news organization” for which he wrote a piece a year ago with a headline that states: “Without any extreme gerrymandering, reapportionment and redistricting alone will likely cost Democrats their majority.”

The Democratic Party also pointed to two tweets by Trende that it called “disturbing and disgusting.”

One tweet from 2013 reads, “You know how conservatives keep talking [about] how no one talks [about] gun violence in Chi? That’s why we do black history month.” Another from September refers to Justice Clarence Thomas as “a smoker who grew up poor and Black in the South.”

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who used to sit on the commission, said the online comments are “troubling” given that a key source of tension in the redistricting process so far has been the protection of the interests of people of color.

“It’s troubling to see the Republican special master has a history of racially insensitive social media postings, to put it generously. I hope that Mr. Trende isn’t as racist as his tweets. We’ll be watching the process to find out,” Simon said.

The Republicans complained last week that the candidates advanced by the Democrats were all academics, which they termed a left-leaning group that overwhelmingly favors Democrats.

In the order, the Supreme Court said disputes between the special masters “are to be resolved by good-faith efforts to find a compromise consistent with legal requirements.”

It said the experts “must not consult with any political parties, partisan organizations, outside experts, or any other person or entity except for their personal support staff, the Justices of this Court and their designated staff, the Executive Secretary and designated employees of the Office of the Executive Secretary, the Clerk of Court, and three individuals employed by the Virginia Division of Legislative Services as permitted.”

The justices said the special masters are encouraged to review comments submitted by any entity or person to the court’s public comment email address, which is redistricting@vacourts.gov.

The order, signed by Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, states: “In short, the Court expects to receive from its Special Masters redistricting maps that have been drafted using factors that are fully compliant with constitutional and statutory law applied in an apolitical and nonpartisan manner.”

Under a constitutional amendment the state’s voters approved last year, redrawing districts using new census data fell to the state Supreme Court last month after the Virginia Redistricting Commission ended in partisan deadlock.

The justices asked party leaders in the House of Delegates and the Senate to submit three or more nominees to assist the court with the job.

fgreen@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6340

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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