Judges toss suit seeking Virginia House elections this year

Jun 6, 2022, 12:52 PM | Updated: 4:03 pm
FILE - Workers begin digging a tunnel to connect the new General Assembly building to the Capitol, ...

FILE - Workers begin digging a tunnel to connect the new General Assembly building to the Capitol, March 2, 2022, in Richmond, Va. Dena Potter, a spokeswoman for the state agency overseeing the project, said the Capitol was briefly evacuated on March 14, 2022, after a contractor working on the $25 million tunnel “inadvertently” poked through the ceiling of a subterranean Capitol extension causing debris to fall into the visitors center cafe. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A three-judge panel dismissed a federal lawsuit Monday that sought to force all 100 members of Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates to face an unscheduled election this year.

U.S. District Judge David Novak, joined by two other judges, ruled that Paul Goldman, an attorney and longtime Democratic Party activist, lacked standing to pursue the lawsuit he filed last June. Goldman had argued that House members elected for two-year terms in November 2021 must run again in 2022 under newly redrawn maps that properly align legislative districts with population shifts.

The 2021 elections should have been the first held under constitutionally required redistricting based on the 2020 census. But because census results were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state held elections under the old legislative boundaries; new maps weren’t finalized until December. Goldman argued that deprived Virginians of their constitutional voting rights, violating the “one man, one vote” principle outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judges ruled Goldman did not have standing as a voter or a potential candidate and granted Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Goldman did not prove that he suffered an “individualized disadvantage” from residing in an underrepresented House of Delegates district, the 31-page opinion and order said. Instead, it said Goldman, a Richmond resident, had benefited from over-representation.

“In fact, had the new maps been in place in time for the election, they would have weakened Plaintiff’s vote,” the court wrote.

Miyares praised the ruling, saying the 2021 elections were “legal and constitutional.”

“Record numbers of Virginians went to the polls to vote and had their voices heard. I’m glad that the court agreed with my office, that there is no more uncertainty for voters and legislators, and that we were able to protect the sanctity of our 2021 elections,” he said in a statement.

Goldman said that the ruling effectively “slashes the right to equal representation in the state legislature” and leaves “important constitutional issues” unresolved. He said he was considering whether to appeal.

“Even though I think I can win the appeal, can you get a ruling in time to have an election in 2022?” he said.

Monday’s ruling on standing comes after months of delays and voluminous briefings in the long-running case. Goldman, a former state Democratic party chair and former adviser to ex-Gov. Doug Wilder, brought the suit alone and has represented himself. Miyares’ predecessor, Democrat Mark Herring, also sought to have it dismissed.

House members on both sides of the aisle had mostly been silent on Goldman’s legal fight, though a growing number of Democratic and voting and civil rights groups announced their support in recent months.

If Goldman had prevailed in persuading the court that new elections were needed, it would have thrown many lawmakers back into campaign mode and forced some of them to consider moving. Lawmakers must reside in the district they represent, and the new maps approved by the state Supreme Court were drawn without concern to where incumbents live.

Currently, Republicans narrowly control the chamber they flipped in November.

The court did say that voters who live in districts with populations larger than the ideal district “likely have standing, because they are underrepresented when compared to the ideal.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if a new legal challenge would be filed.

The Loudoun County NAACP said earlier this year that it was reviewing whether to file its own lawsuit. In a letter, the group said the use of outdated maps in the 2021 elections “suppressed the vote, diluted the voices and diminished the representation” of the group’s 637 members and thousands of county residents of color.

The group did not immediately respond to a voicemail left at its office or an email sent Monday.

Herring — who for months last year ignored a request for an official opinion on the matter — attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out on sovereign immunity grounds. Novak dismissed claims against former Gov. Ralph Northam and several other defendants but declined to dismiss claims against state elections officials.

Since then, much of the argument in the case has focused on Goldman’s standing. In March, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the issue of standing back to the U.S. District Court to decide.

In October, before the matter had reached the 4th Circuit, a federal judge appointed a three-judge panel to handle the case. Monday’s opinion said that the three-judge panel “collectively deciding the issue constitutes the most efficient process” for handling the case.

The judges said the case had “languished for far too long,” blaming both the defendants’ “efforts to engage in piecemeal litigation” and Goldman’s “unorthodox (and occasionally improper) filings.”

Novak wrote the opinion and was joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker and Senior U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson. Novak was nominated by former President Donald Trump and Thacker and Jackson by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively.

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Judges toss suit seeking Virginia House elections this year