A constitutional crisis mainly driven by race and threatening to wipe out the Democratic executive leadership in Virginia could elevate a Republican fighting to preserve state voting districts that critics say disadvantage blacks.
Kirk Cox, now the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, is fourth in line to take over the governorship imperiled by black face controversies involving Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and a sexual assault allegation, which he denies, against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who’d become the second black governor and the first in 25 years if he succeeds his boss.
Cox, 61, is a conservative in a state that continues to struggle to fully shed an ugly historical racial legacy while simultaneously becoming a model for political diversity and an economic powerhouse that’s just lured Amazon to its northern suburbs.
The gerrymandering case, which is set to be argued at the Supreme Court on March 18, isn’t related to the unfolding scandal in Richmond, but it does layer on another element of race to its politics.
Herring announced last year that the state would not continue to defend the now-defunct maps following a lower court’s ruling that invalidated them.
The court’s finding that the legislature “sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin,” should “be of the utmost concern,” Herring said. He urged legislators to act with speed in ensuring that “fair, constitutional lines are drawn as soon as possible.”
Cox wants to intervene to defend the maps, and the Supreme Court will decide, among other things, whether he and the House of Delegates can do so.
Cox’s Richmond-area district, which he’s represented since 1990, isn’t among the 11 districts under review. But any changes to nearby ones being worked out in the courts could alter it.
Packing Black Voters
Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating voting district boundaries to benefit a particular group. The Supreme Court has long held that redrawing lines for racial reasons can be unconstitutional. But it’s struggled for 30 years over whether redistricting for partisan reasons can be halted by the courts.
In addition to the Virginia racial gerrymandering challenge, the justices are set to consider two partisan redistricting cases out of Maryland and North Carolina this term.
The high court itself revived challenges to the 11 state legislative districts at issue in Virginia when the case first came before the justices in 2017, after the lower court had initially upheld the challenged districts.
The legislature may have acted unconstitutionally by relying predominately on race when crafting the challenged districts, the court said. It sent the case back to the lower court to decide if that was in fact the case.
On remand in 2018, the lower court reversed course. The panel decided 2-1 that the state’s then-Republican majority packed black voters into districts to create other districts more favorable to Republican candidates.
The case takes on added significance as Republicans and Democrats vie for control of the state legislature ahead of the next round of redistricting after the 2020 Census.