A federal court has picked a new congressional map for Virginia that significantly changes the racial makeup of two districts and could help Democrats pick up a seat. But the new map could be short lived if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to throw it out.
A three-judge panel Thursday ordered the state to implement a new redistricting map for the 2016 election. The move comes after the panel concluded for a second time last year that legislators in 2012 illegally packed black voters into the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Bobby Scott.
The judges initially ordered the General Assembly to redraw the lines, but when lawmakers balked, the judges hired an expert to help them do it themselves.
The new map significantly alters Scott's district and the 4th Congressional District, represented by Republican Randy Forbes.
Scott's district, which now stretches from Richmond to the Tidewater area with a certain area connected loosely only by the James River, is made more compact and goes from having a black voting-age population of 56 percent to 45 percent.
Forbes' neighboring district in southeast Virginia sees a 9 percent jump in its black voting-age population, going from 31 percent to 40 percent.
The new map will make both districts more competitive, based on past voting patterns. But Forbes appears more vulnerable to a challenge than Scott, and Democrats believe the new map is good for them.
"This is a historic step forward in ending the injustice that racial gerrymandering inflicts upon those whose voices it silences,'' Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement. "Virginia Democrats are now poised to gain a congressional seat which will grant many voters stronger representation in Congress.''
Forbes did not immediately return a request for comment.
Redistricting has been a hotly contested issue in Virginia, as Democrats have alleged that Republicans have unfairly gerrymandered a swing state to their advantage. In Virginia, Republicans control 8 out of 11 congressional districts and both chambers of the General Assembly despite the fact that GOP candidates haven't won statewide office since 2009.
Democrats have had mixed results in the courts. In October, a different panel of judges ruled that the Virginia House of Delegates did not illegally pack black voters into a dozen legislative districts.
It's unclear whether Thursday's order will stick. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to hear an appeal by Virginia Republicans who want to preserve the map approved in 2012. The high court justices are set to hear arguments on the case in February or March.
Republicans had asked the three-judge panel to delay until after the 2016 election, but the judges denied that request, saying it would be unfair and give Republicans "the fruits of victory for another election cycle, even if they lose in the Supreme Court.''