The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee voted, 5-3, June 2 to recommend that the commission issue two Requests for Proposals to hire legal counsel identified with each of the major political parties. The vote marked the first official division among commission members, and a divide, not only between the two parties, but also within the blocs of citizen and legislator members.
The motion was supported by the subcommittee’s two Republican legislative members, its two Republican citizen members, and Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria). The vote came after a substitute motion, which would have recommended issuing an RFP for neutral or non-partisan counsel at the same time, was defeated by the same margin. The subcommittee’s two Democratic citizen members were joined by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) in supporting that approach.
Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Forrest) continued to argue strongly in support of hiring two sets of partisan-affiliated counsel, and that the subcommittee should make a firm recommendation to the full commission. “I strongly believe you can’t do this with one counsel. . . , “ Newman said. “I’m very concerned about having to bet on a single-interest group, because you’re going to have to understand where they stand. I’m very much in favor of a bipartisan approach: I think it comes with two counsels.” Newman’s motion in support of partisan counsel was seconded by Mackenzie Babichenko, the citizen who serves as the commission’s Republican co-chair.
Barker said he supported seeking partisan counsels as “the wise course of action” that would “make sure everybody feels comfortable with the type of information they have been given.” Barker said he did not anticipate that the counsels would argue with each other, but rather that they would be able to explain different sides of an issue. Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale) said she agreed with Barker’s comments. “I look at this as a way for me to learn ways to defend our work. I want to understand both sides.”
Sean Kumar, the subcommittee’s Democratic co-chair, and Greta Harris, Democratic co-chair of the full commission, continued to argue in support of hiring a single counsel. Kumar noted that the RFP said the commission was seeking advice on interpreting the laws governing redistricting. “I don’t understand why it has to be partisan if you are giving advice on the law,” he said. Kumar again argued that it was a waste of taxpayer money to hire two counsels and that if the legislative caucuses wanted partisan advice, they should be the ones to pay for it. Kumar also contended that it was “short-sighted” to make a decision before the commission determined whether there were law firms or legal scholars who could provide neutral or non-partisan advice.