Last week’s circuit court ruling upholding the constitutionality of 11 state legislative districts was a setback for the anti-gerrymandering crusade.
The redistricting reform group One-Virginia2021, which was founded in Charlottesville but now operates out of Richmond, had filed suit alleging that the districts were unconstitutionally drawn—particularly, that they were not compact.
It’s impossible to draw districts that are uniformly compact; the commonwealth itself is not uniformly compact, as any glance at a map will confirm. Fairly drawn districts also must take into account geography and demographics, including the principle of not fracturing communities into different districts if possible.
In defending against the lawsuit, Virginia argued that the districts were compact under the requirements of the state Constitution.
A Richmond judge agreed.
But here’s the interesting thing: The judge also seemed to agree with the plaintiff’s argument that “the Supreme Court of Virginia has [never] established a constitutionally accepted score for measuring the priority given to compactness in drawing legislative districts.”
In other words, there’s no commonly accepted standard for what is compact and what is not.
One of the districts cited in OneVirginia2021’s lawsuit really does look like a salamander that is partially curled in on itself (“gerrymander” partly takes its name from the shape of this long-bodied, short-legged amphibian)—or like the outside edge of a raggedly bitten doughnut. House District 72 is in no way “compact” according to any reasonable layman’s definition.
That this kind of district apparently meets the constitutional requirements of compactness is a telling point. Constitutional preference, and judicial precedence in interpreting the Constitution, may leave something to be desired.
OneVirginia2021 said that this hint of agreement with its argument is a partial victory. “The importance of this interpretation cannot be over-emphasized,” the organization said.
We’re not so sure.
The judge’s statement might eventually serve as some sort of wedge in the effort to pry the General Assembly loose from its tight grip on the practice of creating districts to serve its own agenda, not the best interests of the voters.
But what redistricting reformers really need is a sledgehammer powerful enough to crash through lawmakers’ self-serving resistance to change.
A resounding defeat in court might have served as just such a tool.
OneVirginia2021 says it might appeal the decision, so we’ll see what happens next—if anything.
But for now, we are disappointed that the court failed to find obvious and vigorous proof of wrongdoing that could help reverse the practice of gerrymandering.