Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill (2019)


The late twentieth century witnessed renewed political competition between Democrats and Republicans in Virginia. The old one-party oligarchy of the Byrd Machine no longer existed, as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of federal and, then, state poll taxes boosted African American participation in elections. In the early 2010s, Republicans used the Voting Rights Act's protection of majority-minority districts to eliminate competitive districts and to shore up their own white majority districts that historically had favored GOP candidates. Accordingly, Golden Bethune-Hill and eleven other voters in twelve of these redrawn districts sued state election officials and relevant agencies, claiming that their newly assigned districts were designed along explicitly racial lines in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

Signed into law in 1965, the Voting Rights Act upheld the right of equal protection by ensuring states could not discriminate against voters on account of race or color. However, in the decades that followed, some states attempted to continue discriminating through increasingly complex gerrymandering schemes that diluted the votes of minorities. In December of 2014, twelve voters filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging the government of Virginia had violated their rights of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by packing twelve legislative districts with African American voters. By ensuring that each district had an African American population of 55%, Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates made it possible for surrounding districts to remain overwhelmingly white and more likely to elect Republican candidates. In December of 2015, the district court dismissed the case and the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court. In March of 2017, the Court held in a 5-4 decision that the district court had applied an incorrect legal standard in determining racial gerrymandering. It upheld one district and returned the case to the lower court to reconsider the constitutionality of the other eleven. Upon reconsideration, the district court determined that the districts had been unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered and demanded the Virginia legislature fairly redraw the districts by October of 2018. The Virginia Attorney General declined to appeal the decision. A remedial map, drawn up by Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, was set to be used in future elections, but Republican House speaker Kirk Cox argued the new map favored Democrats and led an appeal of the lower court’s decision. In June of 2019, the Supreme Court dismissed the case for lack of judicial standing and the lower court order implementing the remedial map was upheld. According to the majority, Virginia law did not afford the House of Delegates the power to appeal unless it could prove harm from the lower court order, and new maps altering the political make-up of the House of Delegates did not constitute an appropriate injury.

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

Did a lower court err in striking down the Virginia state legislature’s redistricting plan as a racial gerrymander and did the legislature have judicial standing to appeal that decision?

Citation and Decision

Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, 587 U.S. (2019)| Full Decision

In a 5-4 decision, the Court dismissed the House of Delegates’ appeal for lack of judicial standing, either in representing the state’s interests or in its own right. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that Virginia law only gives the state’s attorney general the right to represent it in civil litigation, Virginia had declined to appeal the lower court’s decision, and that the House of Delegates did not have standing because it did not demonstrate that the lower court decision had inflicted any harm on it as an institution. Justice Samuel Alito dissented and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Discussion Questions

1. Which section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act applies to the drawing of electoral districts? Why was that so important to this case?

2. What legal standard did the Supreme Court determine was misapplied by the district court, and which standard did the district court apply when it reconsidered the case?

3. Why did the Justice Ginsburg state that the House of Delegates “has purported to represent its own interests” throughout the case, and how did that influence the majority opinion on whether the House had standing?

4. Why was Bernard Grofman selected to draw a remedial map, and why did Speaker Cox reject it?

5. In his dissent, why did Justice Alito believe the House of Delegates had standing to appeal, and how did that reflect a growing partisan divide on the Court?