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Here’s how the court will draw Virginia’s new political districts

Building with columns
The Virginia Supreme Court building in downtown Richmond. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission has missed a final deadline to draw new state legislative maps, kicking the process to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The court’s seven justices won’t draw the lines. Instead, they’ll hire two experts who will work together to come up with finished maps.

William and Mary law professor Rebecca Green says the justices would rather be doing almost anything else: “It puts judges right where they don’t like to be, which is in the middle of a political morass.”

Here’s how it works:

  1. Experts nominated - Party leaders in Virginia’s House and Senate have until Nov. 1 to submit the names of at least three “special masters” — expert map-drawers — to the court. 
  2. Court picks two experts - Justices will wade through the nominations to pick one person from each of the parties, by a majority vote.
  3. Experts draw maps - The two experts have 30 days to come up with a unified set of maps for Virginia’s House and Senate districts. They have to follow criteria set out under state law passed last year. Districts must be contiguous and compact, and maps must preserve so-called “communities of interest” like neighborhoods with a shared cultural interest. On a statewide basis, maps can’t “unduly favor” one political party over another, although lawmakers never spelled out how exactly that should be measured.
  4. Public participates - Unlike with the commission, the public won’t get to watch the experts carve up their maps. Members of the public can submit written comments to the clerk of the Supreme Court of Virginia, which could also decide to hold public hearings if one or both experts request to do so. 
  5. Court considers the maps - The court’s seven justices will decide whether the map they receive meets criteria set in state and federal law. They could alter it, order the experts to go back to the drawing board or approve it by a majority vote. 

Green says it’s not unusual for states to use their supreme court as a failsafe in redistricting battles. But she said most hire one expert, not two.

Green, who backed the amendment that created the commission, said the group’s decision to hire two map-makers was a big setback. She worries lawmakers’ decision to have the court use two experts could backfire as well.

“It just seems like you’re setting yourself up to fail,” Green said. “But of course, in the case of the court, unlike the commission, there’s no failure. Failure is not an option.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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