Courting disaster: Republicans pick a losing judicial fight

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In our experience, the current Republican majority in the General Assembly excels at exactly one thing: grandstanding. Not great at legislating, consensus-building or acknowledging basic reality, but boy do they know how to make a ruckus. If the definition of a conservative is, as National Review founder William F. Buckley put it, someone who “stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” Virginia’s GOP contingent has it down. The problem for them is that history does not stop, and sometimes their propensity to pontificate instead of legislate causes the party real problems.

This was definitely the case during the recent GA special session, called by Governor Terry McAuliffe to address repeated court rulings that Virginia’s current congressional district map is unconstitutional. Now, even the most casual of political observers knew that the chances of a new map coming out of this session were infinitesimal. But the actual outcome of this political puppet show was so disastrous for the elephants, it was almost as if they had planned it that way.

The Republicans’ first mistake was failing to file even one revised redistricting plan following the October 2014 court order that instructed them to do so. Although it’s had nearly a year to work on a legislative fix, the GOP caucus has instead ignored the problem, hoping that a higher court would eventually rule in its favor. The Democrats, meanwhile, have proposed three formal redistricting plans (all of which were completely ignored by the Republican majority, natch).

The second huge mistake the Republicans made was trying to hijack the special session to remove and replace recently appointed state supreme court Justice Jane Marum Roush. Roush, a widely respected former Fairfax County Circuit Court judge, received an interim appointment from McAuliffe a few weeks back, and Republicans have been grousing about it ever since. While they praise Roush herself, GOP leadership was annoyed that the governor didn’t consult them before making the appointment, and thus were determined to remove Roush from the bench and confirm their own choice, Court of Appeals Judge Rossie Alston Jr., to a full 12-year term.

And this is where things got juicy. While the Senate was maneuvering to replace Roush, and the House of Delegates was deeply mired in the redistricting debate, Senate Democrats pulled a devious maneuver that seemed straight out of the GOP playbook. Partnering with Midlothian Republican Senator John Watkins, and making great strategic use of Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam’s tie-breaking vote, the Senate’s Democratic minority quickly passed a motion to dissolve the special session, thereby keeping Roush on the state supreme court, and making it all-but-certain that the assembly will not meet the September 1 deadline for passing new redistricting legislation.

Once that deadline has passed, the task of redrawing Virginia’s districts will fall to a panel of federal judges, who will almost certainly unpack the commonwealth’s problematic 3rd District in a way that will negatively impact the state GOP. Meanwhile, McAuliffe will reappoint Justice Roush, and the Republicans will continue to fulminate that the entire mishegoss was unconstitutional, and that the special session isn’t technically over until the House adjourns, and that sputter sputter cough cough sputter.

But as the great newspaper humorist Finley Peter Dunne famously wrote, politics ain’t beanbag, and the Republicans just found that out the hard way. All they can do now is regroup, and try to move their grandstanding to firmer political ground.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.