A Virginia civil rights group wants to join a lawsuit seeking to force new state House of Delegates elections this year, but a judge on Monday said the court must first decide whether the Democratic activist who brought the suit has legal standing to sue.
Paul Goldman, a former state Democratic party chair, argues in a federal lawsuit that House members elected in November 2021 must run again in 2022 under newly redrawn maps that properly align legislative districts with population shifts. The 2021 elections were supposed to be the first held under constitutionally required redistricting under the 2020 census. But because the census results were delayed, the state held elections under the old legislative boundaries because new lines had not yet been drawn.
Goldman has been the only plaintiff in the lawsuit since he filed it last June, but the Loudoun County NAACP wrote a letter to the court last week, asking to join the lawsuit as an affected party. In the letter, the Rev. Michelle C. Thomas, president of the NAACP's Loudoun branch, said the use of outdated maps in the 2021 elections “suppressed the vote, diluted the voices and diminished the representation" of the group's 637 members and thousands of people of color living in the county.
“Loudoun's African American residents and people of color living in disproportionate districts continue to face election discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, while being denied their constitutional rights to fair elections, and adequate legislative representation, based on the current population distribution,” Thomas wrote in the letter.
Former Attorney General Mark Herring attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out on sovereign immunity grounds. U.S. District Judge David Novak dismissed claims against former Gov. Ralph Northam and several other defendants but declined to dismiss claims against four state elections officials.
Since then, much of the argument in the case has focused on whether Goldman has established that he has standing to sue by showing that he was injured by the state's use of the old district lines in the 2021 elections. Last week, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the issue of standing back down to U.S. District Court to decide.
During a hearing Monday, Novak said the appeals court order applies only to whether Goldman has standing and does not apply to others who want to join the case.
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Thomas said the Loudoun NAACP branch is reviewing whether it will file its own lawsuit to try to force elections this year. She said the group plans to consult with the Virginia NAACP and the national NAACP before making a decision.
"Loudoun County is one of the most affected counties in Virginia," Thomas said after the hearing. “We have a vested interest in making sure ... that they have fair representation.”
Novak also criticized Herring's office for causing long delays in the case by asking for it to be dismissed on mainly procedural grounds and failing to take Goldman's legal arguments seriously.
“This case has been a mess from your predecessors,” Novak told attorneys from the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Republican who defeated Herring in the November elections.
Democrats held a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates until Republicans took control of the chamber in the 2021 elections. Republicans now hold a 52-48 majority. Republicans also won the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In arguments before the 4th Circuit earlier this month, Solicitor General Andrew Ferguson argued that the 2021 election was “perfectly constitutional.”
Goldman’s lawsuit argues that new elections must be held this year under new maps that were approved by the Supreme Court of Virginia in December.
If Goldman loses on the standing issue, his lawsuit will be dismissed. Elections would then be held on their normal two-year schedule, in 2023. But the NAACP could still bring a separate lawsuit or join Goldman's lawsuit if the court finds he has legal standing.