A panel of federal judges has granted Virginia’s request to dismiss a lawsuit seeking new House of Delegates elections this year after ruling the plaintiff in the case, Democratic lawyer Paul Goldman, lacked standing to bring the case.
In a 31-page opinion released Monday, three judges agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice and said the case is now closed, though the opinion seems to acknowledge the possibility another party could step in to try to pick up the fight where Goldman failed.
While other groups have shown interest in Goldman’s legal battle, it took nearly a year for the court to rule on the basic question of whether Goldman had standing to sue, raising doubts about whether a new lawsuit could be filed and heard in time to conduct new elections this fall. If no other legal challenges or appeals emerge, the House would be up for election again on new maps in 2023.
The judges ruled Goldman, who claimed the 2021 House elections were unconstitutional because they were held on old district lines that hadn’t been updated to reflect 2020 U.S. Census data, couldn’t show his particular rights had been violated either as a voter or a candidate.
Attorneys for the state had argued the case should be dismissed partly because Goldman’s 2021 district was underpopulated. That meant, according to the argument the judges agreed with, Goldman’s vote technically counted for more than the votes of Virginians who live in the most overpopulated districts and could not have been diluted by the state’s failure to draw new maps before the 2021 races.
The court didn’t fully reject Goldman’s claims that the late census data might have violated Virginians’ voting rights by allowing impermissibly large differences in populations of Virginia House districts. But Goldman himself can’t credibly make the claim, the judges wrote, because “he did not suffer a particularized injury in fact that would furnish him standing to pursue this case as a voter.”
“Voters who live in districts with populations larger than the ideal district likely have standing, because they are underrepresented when compared to the ideal,” U.S. District Court Judge David J. Novak wrote in the opinion. Concurring with Novak were judges Stephanie D. Thacker and Raymond A. Jackson.
The court ruled Goldman also lacked standing as a potential House candidate, “because legislators and candidates have no cognizable interest in the composition of their districts.”
Virginia author Jeff Thomas had sought to join Goldman’s lawsuit, but the court also dismissed his motion to intervene. In a footnote, the court advised Thomas that if he chooses to pursue his own lawsuit, he should note the relationship to the Goldman case.
Though Virginia Democrats lost control of the House last year, the party has shown little appetite for a do-over in 2022 and did not formally intervene to assist Goldman’s case. The administrations of former Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, and current Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Republican, defended the state in the lawsuit.
“The 2021 Virginia elections were legal and constitutional,” Miyares said in a news release. “Record numbers of Virginians went to the polls to vote and had their voices heard. I’m glad that the court agreed with my office, that there is no more uncertainty for voters and legislators, and that we were able to protect the sanctity of our 2021 elections.”
In a statement, Goldman emphasized that the largely procedural ruling “slashes the right to equal representation in the state legislature,” adding “important constitutional issues remain unresolved.” In a phone interview, Goldman seemed skeptical of pursuing an appeal given the time constraints.
“It is a lesson to people: You’re going to have to defend your own rights,” he said. “I did everything one person could do. With any kind of help, read the opinion, it basically says it’d be a different result.”