The Virginia Redistricting Commission meets in Richmond. Photo by Markus Schmidt

These are probably the seven unhappiest people in Virginia right now, perhaps even unhappier than all those Virginia Tech fans who were chanting last weekend for the football coach to be fired: Teresa Chafin, Bernard Goodwyn, Arthur Kelsey, Donald Lemons, Stephen McCullough, William Mims and Cleo Powell.

These are the justices on the Virginia Supreme Court, who will now have the unpleasant task of doing what the Virginia Redistricting Commission could not: draw new congressional and state legislative district lines.

Judges typically don’t like to weigh in on political issues, and redistricting is one of the most political issues of all. Tech fans who want Justin Fuente “redeployed outside the organization” – as a former human resources manager I once knew liked to describe a firing – may get their wish, but the justices won’t get theirs. They are now stuck with redistricting.

Democrats – who tried to sabotage the constitutional amendment that created the commission once they gained a majority in the General Assembly – have always been skeptical of the judicial option because Virginia’s is a conservative court whose members were mostly picked over the years by an all-Republican General Assembly. One (Mims) is a former Republican state legislator and attorney general. Another (Chafin) is the sister of a former Republican legislator. Yet a third (McCullough) worked for a Republican attorney general.

On the other hand, I’ve always thought that the Republicans who were secretly cheering for an impasse that would lead to the court imposing its own maps should remember the cautionary adage of “be careful what you wish for.” As Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro pointed out recently, the court has always been deferential to the General Assembly. That might be good news for some Democratic legislators in Northern Virginia who live in close proximity to one another; the court might be more inclined to leave them in place than a truly citizen-driven commission intent on more logical lines might have been. Or Republicans would have been, if given the opportunity. Still, some unpleasant choices will have to be made and while judges are usually quite content making a legal ruling, however unpopular it might be, these choices have little to do with the law. The justices may wind up being more cautious than conservative. Shapiro quotes one legal authority: “It’s my sense that they’ll do anything they can to avoid the appearance of partiality.”

Oh, and there’s this: Unlike U.S. Supreme Court justices who serve for life, Virginia Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms. One (Mims) has already announced his retirement, and two others (Lemons and Chafin) will age out and so won’t be eligible for reappointment. (Virginia has a mandatory retirement age of 73.) But four others are eligible for reappointment – by legislators who will be elected in the districts the justices will be responsible for drawing. That’s likely another reason why we may not see too many changes, or a map that is decidedly favorable to this party rather than the other.

It’s useful to understand that the justices themselves won’t be gathered around a conference table with a state highway map and a box of Magic Markers. The law requires them to pick one Democratic consultant and one Republican consultant and then have those consultants work together. That’s the real trick: Can that really happen? There are some fundamental questions that are difficult to compromise on. Should Roanoke should be drawn into a state Senate district with Salem and as much of Roanoke County as possible – which would put both Democrat John Edwards and Republican David Suetterlein into a district that would tilt decidedly Republican. Or should Democratic-voting Roanoke should be drawn into a district with Democratic Blacksburg and Radford, which would keep both Edwards and Suetterlein in office, just in separate districts, with Montgomery County sliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Here’s the inconvenient part for Democrats: State law already says that a “community of interest” should be defined geographically, although there is some wiggle room because it says a community of interest is “any geographically defined group of people living in an area who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests.” Does a thin ribbon of land connecting Roanoke with Radford and Blacksburg constitute a “geographically defined group of people” who “share similar social, cultural and economic interests”? How will the consultants reconcile that? How will the justices?

More broadly, what’s the incentive for either party’s mapmakers to compromise if it means giving up a seat you think you might win? And no matter who draws the lines, Southwest and Southside will lose some seats, just based on population changes. That means somebody somewhere – several somebodies – are going to get drawn into districts with another legislator. It’s just a matter of who and where, a political game of musical chairs. The justices, who once weighed in on the state’s death penalty cases, will have to weigh in here on what amounts to political death for some incumbents. Good luck with that.

It’s fashionable to say that Virginia’s attempt with a redistricting commission has failed. I’ve even said it myself. It’s certainly failed to produce maps. However, as I’ve written before, we shouldn’t be surprised. The very structure of the commission – intentionally full of partisans and evenly divided between parties – was never likely to produce any kind of compromise. However, it’s possible to make the case that the commission has been successful in another way: It’s brought the options out into the full glare of the public. Without the commission, the majority party in the General Assembly – at the moment, Democrats but potentially someday Republicans – would have produced maps in secret and sprung them on an unsuspecting public. And what the public thought wouldn’t have mattered very much. That’s how it’s always worked in the past, no matter which party was in charge.

Now both parties have been forced to put their maps on the table, so to speak, and the public has had a chance to weigh in. The Supreme Court justices won’t have to guess what people think; they already know. I bet justices won’t try to split Lynchburg between congressional districts the way the proposed Republican map did, and which drew objections even from fellow Republicans.

Just in case any Supreme Court justices are reading (and in my former job with The Roanoke Times, I once got a hand-written note from one justice complimenting me on my work), here are some guidelines I think they should follow for districts in this part of the state. If you read my previous commentary on redistricting, including my proposed maps for the 9th and 5th congressional districts, you won’t be surprised.

  1. Districts shouldn’t cross the Blue Ridge Mountains unless absolutely necessary to make the math work out. And it hardly ever will be. The Blue Ridge should be regarded as a red line. There’s no reason why the 9th District should extend east of the Blue Ridge; it can be drawn quite logically so that it’s entirely west of the mountains. (At present it extends into Patrick County, as well as Martinsville and part of Henry County.) Same for state legislative districts. Right now, we have two mountain-crossing House of Delegates districts that make no geographic sense. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, represents a district that runs from Alleghany County to the outskirts of Lynchburg. Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, represents a district that crosses the mountains over to Amherst County. The state Senate district represented by Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, runs from Lynchburg to the West Virginia line; his constituents in Craig County are closer to at least three other senators than they are to him. And the 6th Congressional District is generally a north-south district along Interstate 81, except for a jag over to Amherst County and Lynchburg. Plenty of people filed complaints with the redistricting commission about how unnecessary and inconvenient these mountain-crossing districts are. Those district lines don’t reflect how people live on the ground. People west of the Blue Ridge think north-south following I-81 and U.S. 11; they don’t think much in terms of east-west when east-west involves crossing a mountain. If it were up to me, the only mountain-crossing General Assembly district I’d allow would be in the northern Shenandoah Valley where there’s a significant amount of commuter traffic from Front Royal into Northern Virginia on Interstate 66, and even then I’d try to avoid that if possible.
  2. Split as few localities as possible. This is generally a Republican principle. State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has long championed this and Democrats have always managed to kill his bill. That’s because Democrats like the idea of drawing districts based on cultural interests – see the Roanoke/New River valley example above.  Whether that’s a valid principle is something that justices will have to decide. However, historically we’ve seen localities split for no reason whatsoever. Suetterlein represents eight localities between Carroll County and Bedford County, but only two of those – Floyd County and Salem – are intact. Splitting localities is necessary to protect minorities under the Voting Rights Act and various court rulings, but that’s not what’s driving the slicing-and-dicing of those localities. Unfortunately, Republicans aren’t above partisan surgery when it suits their ends. Their proposed congressional maps showed no reluctance about splitting localities, which brings us to …
  3. Don’t dilute the voting power of rural voters. We can’t legally dilute the votes of ethnic minorities; we shouldn’t dilute the votes of people in rural areas, either, if we can help it. The practical effect of this: The 5th Congressional District should be drawn to be as purely a Southside district as possible. Many voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle County – all of them of a liberal bent – filed complaints about their community being drawn into a mostly rural and conservative district. They’re right. Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t have much in common with Southside. They should go somewhere else – where that somewhere else becomes an interesting question that has some political implications, of course. Drawn into a 6th District out of the Shenandoah Valley that might be more Republican than the 5th is now? Drawn down Interstate 64 to connect to the Democratic suburbs of Richmond? Drawn north up U.S. 29 to include part of Northern Virginia? You can make reasonable arguments for all those. Have fun with the cartography. All I know is that Charlottesville and Albemarle aren’t naturally connected to Southside and don’t have to be.

    I proposed a district that was about as pure Southside as you can get with the math required – it would have excised Charlottesville and Albemarle and instead added Lynchburg from the 6th District (again, my mountain-crossing rule is the guiding principle). By contrast, Republicans devised a plan that would have drawn the 5th into the Richmond suburbs – and, indeed, made the Richmond suburbs the biggest population center in the district. That might have the desirable effect (desirable for Republicans, anyway) of depriving 7th District Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico County, of her political base but would have also diluted the rural character of the 5th District. This principle works both ways: Don’t dilute a rural district by adding in a lot of unnecessary suburban voters; don’t dilute the power of suburban voters by unnecessarily putting a bunch of them into an otherwise rural district. If Republicans liked my “don’t split localities unless you have to” principle, Democrats ought to like the “don’t dilute rural districts” principle. It would even give them an opportunity to something many don’t these days: advocate on behalf of rural voters.

And if any justices are reading this, I’m happy to offer advice. In fact, I just did.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.