Virginia Democrats are raising hell after Republicans unexpectedly rammed a controversial redistricting bill through the state Senate on Monday, capitalizing on the absence of a Democratic lawmaker and civil rights leader who was in Washington for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.

The Virginia Senate is currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, each occupying 20 seats in the legislative body. Democratic State Sen. Harry Marsh's absence paved the way for passage of the previously unannounced legislation by a count of 20 votes to 19.

"The new redistricting map revises the districts created under the 2011 map," writes Talking Points Memo's Evan McMorris-Santoro, "and would take effect before the next state Senate elections in Virginia and would redraw district lines to maximize the number of safe GOP seats."

According to the Associated Press:

After the measure was sprung on unsuspecting Democrats, its sponsor, Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, defended it as an effort to create another majority black Senate district. What he didn't say is that it would create even more GOP-dominant districts.

The move apparently came as a surprise even to Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who TPM described as "non-committal on the new maps," possibly because of the power play's problematic optics.

State Senator Marsh practiced civil rights law before his election as the first black mayor of Richmond, Va., and later as a six-term state senator.

Virginia Democrats are vowing to challenge the move in court, according to the Washington Post.

“We talk about the dangers of legislating on the fly. Well, this is the ultimate in danger,” Democrat Sen. Don McEachin reportedly said. “The public has no idea what we’re about to do adopting this substitute, nor would they know in the next three days that it would take for this bill to ultimately pass.”

McEachin also called the stunt “secretive and underhanded.”

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