The best movies always have quotable dialogue and a plot twist that you never see coming. From campy horror flicks like “Scream” to thought-provoking dramas like “Fight Club,” these movies follow a script that everyone seems to recognize in the beginning, but then takes a sharp turn, changing the direction you envisioned the movie or its characters going.
On Monday, August 17, this is exactly what happened during the Special Session.
Setting the Stage
The Governor called the General Assembly back to Richmond for a Special Session to work on a replacement for the Congressional District map approved in 2012. That map was unconstitutional, a federal court ruled, because it packed African American voters into a single congressional district. The Commonwealth is under a court order to fix the map by September 1, 2015.
Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated development, Governor McAuliffe appointed Fairfax County circuit court judge Jane Roush to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court on July 27, 2015, ending a five-year period in which no judges from the state’s most populous jurisdiction were on either of the state’s appeals courts.
Following the Governor’s call for a special session, however, in a maneuver that hadn’t been attempted in over 100 years, Republicans said they would not consider making Justice Roush’s appointment permanent, and would instead install their own pick, Judge Rossie Alston, Jr. on the Supreme Court.
In a pre-Session press release, Speaker Bill Howell repeated his party’s line that we should wait until the litigants had fully finished reviewing the case and that it was premature for the General Assembly to meet at this time, notwithstanding the court’s order. The GOP argued we would at most tinker with the 3rd District as little as possible to satisfy the court’s requirements.
Members of the Democratic leadership and the NAACP, on the other hand, went ahead and produced an entirely new map to address the racial gerrymandering, attempting to comply with the Court’s ruling.
The morning of the Special Session, a Joint Reapportionment committee released redistricting criteria that were almost identical to those used in 2011, and were limited to looking at the 3rd District only. That was expected. The meeting of the committee was just a formality.
Secondary Plot Becomes Primary Plot
Immediately following the reapportionment committee meeting, a Joint Meeting of the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees met to conduct judicial interviews. That’s when things got interesting.
According to the rules of the Senate and the longstanding tradition of the House of Delegates, any member may request a candidate be interviewed and their request will be granted. When Senator Janet Howell requested an interview of Justice Roush, however, her motion was inexplicably ruled to be out of order. After about 30 minutes of friendly questions from Republicans, and a few pointed ones from Democrats, the committees certified Judge Alston as the only candidate for the job.
But that’s what we all expected would happen. That’s how the script was meant to play out.
The Plot Twist
After an hour of floor speeches about the process which had brought us to that point, it was time to vote. With a 21-19 majority in the Senate, the party line vote was expected to elect Judge Alston after which the ballot would be sent to the House, where Republicans hold a more commanding 67-33 advantage.
Then, Bam! Plot Twist Alert!
When the Senate vote closed, however, Judge Alston had only 20 votes, not the 21 required to be elected. Retiring Republican John Watkins couldn’t bring himself to unseat a sitting Justice on a straight line partisan vote.
But that wasn’t all. While the House adjourned temporarily to begin public hearings on the redistricting issue, at 3:26 p.m., the Senate voted to adjourn the Special Session sine die – for good, with the help of Senator Watkins and President of the Senate, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam’s tie-breaking vote.
With the Senate formally adjourned, the House cannot return for a Special Session on its own. Assuming that the parliamentary procedure holds, this surprise move not only means that drawing the new congressional map is now in the hands of the Court, but that Judge Roush will keep her appointment until the regular 2016 Session.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]