By Kit Goldfarb
Special to the Rappahannock News
I recently had the opportunity to talk to lawyer Paul Smith about voting issues in Virginia and other states, especially the issue of gerrymandering. Smith, who divides his time between Flint Hill and Washington, D.C., is working on a number of important cases addressing voting rights, most notably an upcoming case before the Supreme Court addressing the issue of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin.
Smith will be discussing the issue of gerrymandering at the Little Washington Theatre on Saturday, July 15th, following a 7:30 p.m. screening of the documentary “Gerryrigged.” Admission is free.
KG: Paul, redistricting and gerrymandering have been in the news in Virginia as well as nationally. You are going to argue the Wisconsin case on gerrymandering that has just been accepted by the Supreme Court. Can you explain why this is such an important issue to the citizens of Virginia as well as the rest of the country?
PS: Like residents of many other states, Virginians have experienced gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts as lawmakers have carved up the districts to create pre-determined partisan outcomes, largely immune to the will of the people. There is a growing movement seeking to put a stop to this practice here and around the country. People are just fed up. They want courts to step in or they want the creation of neutral and independent redistricting commissions. In the Wisconsin case, we are asking the Supreme Court to recognize that extreme gerrymanders violate the U.S. Constitution because they amount to use of the law to discriminate against a group of citizens based on their political point of view and partisan affiliation. If we win, the ruling will impact district maps all across the country.
KG: Arguing before the Supreme Court is a pretty daunting task. You will have done it 20 times. Have you argued other cases that address gerrymandering or voting rights in general?
PS: Yes indeed. In fact, I came close to overturning a partisan gerrymander 13 years ago in a case called Vieth v. Jubelirer, which addressed gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. Four justices said we should win, four said we should lose, and Justice Kennedy broke the tie in a separate opinion that said partisan gerrymandering is a terrible thing but he didn’t think we had supplied a sufficiently clear test for identifying maps that go over the line. We hope that some new social science tests, developed since 2004, will convince him and four other Justices that it is time to put a stop to extreme gerrymanders. I also argued a partially successful challenge to the Texas congressional district map in 2006, and I successfully defended the legislative map drawn by the Arizona independent commission in 2015. One other notable voting case I argued was the first big challenge to a voter ID law in Crawford v. Marion County.
KG: What other cases have you argued?
PS: I’ve argued a whole variety of Supreme Court cases. The most notable non-voting cases are probably Lawrence v. Texas, a major gay rights case that laid the foundation for marriage equality, and Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n, where a closely divided Court decided to provide full First Amendment protection to video games. That one made me a hero of game developers everywhere!
KG: When you set out in your law career, was arguing before the Supreme Court a goal you consciously set for yourself?
PS: Like many of my contemporaries, when I went to law school, I wanted to use my law degree to make the world a better place. I assumed that I’d work in government or maybe a non-profit civil rights or civil liberties group. Instead, I was in private practice for 35 years, but I still found the chance to make an impact. That has been very gratifying.
KG: You recently left your law firm to work for a non-profit and teach at Georgetown Law. Does teaching law students give you a different perspective on your work?
PS: Teaching a large lecture class on election law this past semester turned out to be great fun, but also a ton of work! The students were interested, engaged and well prepared. I wondered if I might encounter generational barriers to communication, but I didn’t at all. I do hope eventually to be able to spend some time thinking and writing about the Supreme Court and how it has operated and changed during the three decades I have been arguing cases there. But first I have to get this big gerrymandering case behind me and deal with a lot of other important work we are doing at the Campaign Legal Center, the nonprofit I recently joined.
KG: Many of us are very proud that one of our Rappahannock neighbors is playing such an impressive role in our legal system and in history. What made you want to choose the county for your weekend home?
PS: Well, first of all, Rappahannock is remarkably beautiful. I’ve always had a fondness for Vermont and I think Rappahannock matches or exceeds it in terms of the physical beauty of the fields, the mountains and the villages. But even more important are the people. We have made so many friends so quickly here. And they are all so interesting and so different. It’s truly amazing.
KG: Are there any ways for people who are interested in this issue to get involved?
PS: Gerryrigged, the movie to be shown on July 15 at the Little Washington Theatre, not only provides a lot of information about gerrymandering but also describes the work of an important non-partisan Virginia organization, OneVirginia2021. They would welcome more involvement. Another way to help is to support the Campaign Legal Center. In addition to fighting gerrymandering, we are busy opposing voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement laws, as well as defending reasonable regulations of campaign spending.
KG: Thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to add?
PS: People sometimes say that gerrymandering has been around for a long time, so what’s the big deal? Well it is a big deal because it has gotten a lot more extreme in recent years, given the bitter partisan divide in this country and the sophistication of the computer technology now available. One result is legislatures and congressional delegations that don’t represent the views of the voters. Another is increased polarization, because gerrymanders tend to eliminate competitive districts. As a result, office holders need only concern themselves with winning their own party’s primary, versus addressing the issues affecting voters from both parties in order to win in the general election. That’s not good for our politics.
— Kit Goldfarb, who sits on the board of Belle Meade School, has provided communications and marketing services for 30 years. She has worked for major global organizations as well as small start-ups, primarily in the technology sector. She and her husband live in Rappahannock County.