Associated Press
Monday, July 25, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia General Assembly returns to Richmond on Friday to fill judicial vacancies from trial courts to the state Supreme Court that have sat empty for months, but with no solution in sight to a lingering impasse over congressional redistricting.

House and Senate leaders agreed on the date after Gov. Bob McDonnell sent a scolding letter last week to senior lawmakers over unfinished judicial appointments and redistricting work.

In the letter, the governor said the vacancies were causing numerous hardships ranging from local trial courts to the state’s highest court, where two of its seven seats are vacant.

“Substitute and retired judges are working on many cases, and the Supreme Court is hearing fewer cases with smaller panels,” McDonnell wrote.

McDonnell said he would make the appointments himself unless the General Assembly acts swiftly.

House Speaker William J. Howell, the Republican House and the Democratic-ruled Senate have finally agreed on a slate of judicial appointments that has eluded them since January.

But there is no House and Senate accord on the highly partisan issue of redrawing Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. Six lawmakers — three from the House, three from the Senate — were appointed nearly seven weeks ago to resolve differences between conflicting versions of the bill.

Lawmakers are constitutionally required to finish redistricting by the end of 2011.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin said the General Assembly would finally adjourn its long-running special session that has lingered since April. The redistricting bill would perish with adjournment.

But Howell, R-Stafford, said he didn’t foresee a final adjournment. “What would be the purpose of a sine die adjournment,” he asked. “We have time to get this done and I think we will.”

The House legislation makes minimal changes to Virginia’s current congressional map. It bolsters to 56 percent the black voting-age population of the state’s only majority-black district, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott’s 3rd District.

All of Virginia’s sitting congressmen have signed off on the plan, which critics call an “incumbent protection plan.”

The Senate bill moves some majority black precincts from Scott’s district into the neighboring 4th District, reducing the black voting-age population percentage in Scott’s district to 45 while boosting Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes’ 4th District black voting-age majority from 34.4 percent to 53 percent.

Del. Bill Janis, sponsor of the House plan, says his measure complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed to prevent dilution of minority voting strength.

McEachin notes that 20 percent of Virginia’s population is black, yet black voters have sufficient concentrations to elect the candidate of their choice in only one of the state’s 11 districts. That, he says, constitutes “packing,” which effectively segregates minority voters into a minimum number of districts.

Regardless of which congressional redistricting plan the General Assembly enacts, it faces an automatic Justice Department review under the Voting Rights Act, and possible federal court challenges.

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