RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A court is refusing to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the General Assembly's authority to redraw its congressional districts a year late.
Six plaintiffs sued, challenging the new, Republican-authored U.S. House reapportionment bill that was rushed through a GOP-dominated General Assembly last week.
Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law unannounced on Tuesday night, after the court had ruled. His office never announced the official act, and confirmed it only in response to reporters' questions Wednesday.
The court's decision Tuesday casts uncertainty on the development of congressional campaigns, particularly for challengers, who now must wait for definitive districts to be put in place ahead of primary elections scheduled for June 5.
The Richmond Circuit Court decision held that the state Constitution is clear and emphatic in directing that the legislature shall redraw state and federal legislative boundaries in the year 2011 and every 10 years thereafter.
It ruled that using the word "shall" was mandatory and binding, not discretionary and "not designed for metaphysical or logical subtleties, for niceties of expression, for critical propriety, for elaborate shades of meaning, or for the exercise of philosophical acuteness or judicial research."
"What they've (legislative Republicans) done here is devalue the state Constitution. When what it says doesn't suit them, they just thumb their nose at it," said Del. Joseph Morrissey, D-Henrico.
State Sen. A. Donald McEachin, an attorney, said the court's unequivocal analysis upholding the mandatory nature of the Constitution's language isn't the final word, "and I don't ever want to suggest that I know where the judge is going to go, but it's enough to make a first-year lawyer blush suggesting that 'shall' doesn't mean 'shall.'"
"The judge clearly said that redistricting was something that was to happen in the year 2011," said McEachin, a Henrico Democrat. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican contender for the 2013 governor's race, said in a statement Wednesday the court had exceeded its authority.
His statement was the first public acknowledgement that McDonnell had signed the bill.
"Given the impending elections and deadlines associated with the federal Voting Rights Act, my office is seeking immediate intervention by the Supreme Court of Virginia," Cuccinelli said. He said he is also seeking a stay of further circuit court proceedings pending a Supreme Court ruling.
The lawsuit, with the backing of Democrats, was filed last year after a yearlong standoff between the Republican-ruled House, the Senate then controlled by Democrats, and the resolve by both sides to stand firm behind their rival U.S. House redistricting plans.
The General Assembly completed work on state legislative districts in the spring.
Republicans gained two state Senate seats from the Democrats in last fall's elections and achieved 20-20 partisan parity in the 40-member chamber.
With Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling providing the decisive 21st vote in a disputed vote on the General Assembly's opening day two weeks ago, Republicans were able to assert a working majority. In just nine days, House and Senate Republicans sped their redistricting plan through final passage and put it on McDonnell's desk.
Democrats objected, saying the GOP plan violates the federal Voting Rights Act by allowing for only one majority black congressional district out of eleven when one in every five Virginians is black.
The Democratic plan would create two districts in which African-Americans would have concentrations sufficient to elect a candidate of their choice.