A three-judge panel in Richmond on Thursday imposed a new Virginia congressional map that could give blacks a chance to elect candidates of their choice in two districts, not just one.
Unless the U.S. Supreme Court halts implementation, the reconfiguration will lower the black voting age population in the 3rd District, represented by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat, from 56.3 percent to 45.3 percent.
It will raise the black voting age population in the 4th District, represented by Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican, from 31.3 percent to 40.9 percent.
Scott’s district, which meandered from the Richmond area to Newport News, will now be centered in Hampton Roads.
Richmond and Petersburg move into Forbes’ 4th District, changing its politics significantly. In the 4th’s previous configuration, President Barack Obama received 48.8 percent of the vote in 2012. The president received 60.9 percent of the vote in the new 4th District the judges imposed.
State Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, has said he would consider running in a newly configured 4th District.
“Over the past few hours, numerous people have reached out asking me to run for Congress in the new 4th Congressional District,” McEachin said in a statement Thursday.
“While I’m incredibly honored by the confidence these folks have shown in me, right now I am focused on the coming session of the General Assembly.” He added: “There will be a time and place to discuss federal offices.”
Forbes’ office did not respond to requests for comment on the new map. A lawyer for Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation could not be reached.
The new map alters only the 3rd District and four that abut it, all represented by Republicans: the 4th; the 7th, represented by Rep. Dave Brat; the 1st, represented by Rep. Robert J. Wittman; and the 2nd, represented by Rep. Scott Rigell.
The 7th District in which Brat has been serving stretched from the Richmond suburbs to Spotsylvania and Culpeper counties. It was 77 percent white and 15 percent black, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Under the new map the district is 72 percent white and 19 percent black.
While the new 7th still profiles as a Republican district, Brat loses Hanover County — a key base of his support — and New Kent County to Wittman’s 1st District, while picking up Powhatan, Amelia and Nottoway counties from Forbes’ old 4th.
The three-judge panel had twice ruled that in 2012 Virginia legislators packed too many additional blacks into Scott’s majority-minority district, thereby diluting their influence in surrounding districts.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation. Their lawyers had urged the three judges not to impose a new map before the Supreme Court rules later this year.
U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady and Judge Albert Diaz of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in their majority opinion Thursday that waiting would compound the injury.
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne dissented in part, saying “a remedial plan is neither required, nor permitted.” He also split with the majority on the timing of the ruling. Payne said implementation of the remedial plan “should have been stayed pending resolution of the merits of the case by the Supreme Court.”
O’Grady and Diaz wrote in their majority opinion that “the public interest aligns with the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ interests, and thus militates against staying implementation of a remedy.”
They added that “the harms to the plaintiffs would be harms to every voter in the Third Congressional District. In addition, the harms to the commonwealth are public harms.”
Scott praised the new map, saying it “fixes the unconstitutional racial gerrymander of Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District.”
In recommending his proposals to the judges in November, the expert they hired, Bernard Grofman of the University of California, Irvine, explained his approach. He said voting patterns showed that an African-American could prevail in a 3rd District with a black voting-age population of less than 50 percent.
He said that his proposed changes to the 4th would turn it into a second “minority opportunity” district.
Republicans now hold an 8-3 edge in Virginia’s U.S. House delegation.
In late 2013 lawyers affiliated with the Democratic Party brought the suit, with three 3rd District residents as plaintiffs. The suit named the State Board of Elections as defendants. In late 2013 Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation moved to intervene and were added as defendants.
Last year the three-judge panel ordered the General Assembly to implement a new congressional redistricting plan by Sept. 1, 2015. Gov. Terry McAuliffe called an August special session so lawmakers could redraw the map, but Democrats in the state Senate — with the help of Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan — moved to adjourn, throwing the cartography back to the court.
Timing is a key issue in the case because prospective congressional candidates — and their supporters — need to know the districts’ parameters far in advance of the congressional election, now set for Nov. 8.
Congressional primaries usually occur in June, but absentee ballots must go out earlier.
O’Grady and Diaz write in the majority opinion that “the 2016 congressional election cycle has just begun in Virginia” but they note that lawyers representing the State Board of Elections had said it would be critical to have a plan in place by late March.
O’Grady and Diaz write that lawyers for Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation “have not made a strong showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits” at the Supreme Court.
The judges in the majority acknowledge that if the Supreme Court ultimately forces Virginia to revert to its previous congressional map, it “will cause hardship to some of the (Republicans’) campaigns.”
But O’Grady and Diaz add: “We are more reluctant to grant a stay with the effect of giving the appellant” — meaning Republicans in the Virginia delegation — “the fruits of victory whether or not the appeal has merit.”
Payne writes in his dissent that “until after the Supreme Court decides the case, neither the intervenors (Virginia’s Republicans in Congress) nor their possible opponents, nor the electorate will know the composition of the districts that will be in effect in November 2016.”
Payne writes that the prospect of running “parallel campaigns” under such circumstances presents “a realistic, serious and immediate threat of confusion for candidates and constituents alike.”
O’Grady was appointed by President George W. Bush, while Diaz was appointed by Obama. Payne is an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.
Staff writer Jim Nolan contributed to this report.