Virginia's long-running legal battle over the state's 3rd Congressional District lines will be taken up Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court.
This is the last hurrah for Republican members of Congress hoping to block a redrawn map likely to send an extra Virginia Democrat to Congress later this year. Already U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott's old district has been found unconstitutional, twice, by a lower court.
The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, and set oral arguments for Monday. But the court declined to keep the old lines in place while the matter was pending. Election preparations are proceeding under the new lines a three judge panel approved in January.
The new map took black voters out of Scott's district, moving them to the 4th District and making it a likely Democratic pickup.
The high court's decision to proceed toward June Congressional primaries with that new map in place signaled, to some, that reversal is unlikely. But the court is hard to predict, though Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month changed the math.
With his seat vacant, eight justices will hear the case.
"I think it's a four-four issue at best," said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, a redistricting reform group that has a separate lawsuit targeting House of Delegates districts in Virginia.
"I think the new districts will stay in place," Cannon predicted.
Henry L. Chambers Jr., a University of Richmond School of Law professor who has followed the 3rd District case, wasn't willing to hazard a prediction.
"To be honest I have no idea," he said. "It's a tough call because they can do pretty much whatever they want."
Democrats filed suit over the old 3rd District lines in October 2013, arguing that Republicans packed black voters into Scott's district to dilute their voting strength in surrounding Hampton Roads districts.
Scott, D-Newport News, is Virginia's lone black member of Congress.
A three-judge panel agreed, but Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court. The court sent the case back down to the panel after deciding a similar, and precedent-setting, case out of Alabama.
Again, the panel found the 3rd District unconstitutional, and after the General Assembly's Republican majority declined to draw new maps, the court hired an expert to do so.
It's unclear when the high court will rule this go around, but the court's current term ends in June, and Virginia's primaries are June 14.
"I would like to see something relatively quickly ... particularly if they were going to reverse in some way," Chambers said. "But, as I say, who can rush the court?"
Michael Carvin, an attorney for the Republican members of Congress fighting the new map, declined to comment on the case this week. Aria Branch, an attorney for voters who brought this case, did not return a message seeking comment.
Branch is with Perkins Coie, a firm with ties to the Democratic Party and to the party's presidential frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. It has brought voting cases in a number of states in recent years.
This being a presidential election year, the new maps don't just impact congressional races. Most Republican and Democratic convention delegates are elected by district, then empowered to help pick their party's nominee.
Virginia Democrats stuck with the old lines for that process. Republicans are using the new ones, which has caused some confusion as party officials sort out who can serve from where.
Just who the GOP sends to its convention could end up being particularly important this year. If none of the party's candidates win enough delegates in the state-by-state presidential primaries to take the nomination outright, then, after the first ballot at convention, delegates can back a different candidate then the one chosen by voters in their state.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.