On Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court appeared to cast aside all three individuals picked by Republican leaders in the state legislature as candidates for a role of “special master” in the redistricting process in the state. The process involving these so-called special masters has begun after a bipartisan commission found itself unable to come to an agreement on new boundary lines for Virginia’s Congressional and state legislative districts. Now, the state Supreme Court is leading the process, which is set to feature the input of one “special master” nominated by Democrats and Republicans each.
As of this weekend, Republican leaders have been ordered by the Virginia Supreme Court to put forward three new nominees for the special master position. The court singled out statistician Thomas Bryan in its order pushing back on the GOP picks — as it turns out, Bryan had been the beneficiary of a $20,000 consulting fee dished out by the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus just this September, meaning that there was a clear potential for a conflict of interest, should he have ended up serving as a special master for the redistricting process.
The Republican leaders responsible for Bryan’s nomination did not mention the money that he’d received, although the court notes that Bryan “ultimately disclosed relevant information” during subsequent proceedings. Virginia state Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D) also noted the payment in a letter to the court. It’s a relevant issue — as the court put it, whichever nominees are picked “will serve as officers of the Court in a quasi-judicial capacity,” so “the Special Masters must be neutral and must not act as advocates or representatives of any political party.” As for the other two nominations from Virginia Republican leaders — Adam Kincaid, who serves as the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, and Adam Foltz, who’s provided services to the Texas House Redistricting Committee — the court noted “concerns” about their abilities to serve as required.
In contrast, Democrats had just one of their picks pushed back upon by the court, although it wasn’t immediately clear which one that actually was. According to the court, though, one of the Democratic selections had “asserted a condition or reservation that suggests” that they “may not be willing to serve” in line with the part of the relevant law that demands work in tandem with the other special master on the case. Democrats were accordingly directed to submit one new nomination; the three that they put forward already were political science professors.
Going forward, redistricting can have a serious impact on the political environment in the United States. If those in charge of the process manipulate the lines to put their own supporters in the majority in as many districts as possible — or to set up some related scenario — then the basic ability of the people to exert their will over the government through the fair selection of representatives could be undercut.