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Federal judge upholds Florida redistricting amendment

MIAMI — Two members of Congress from Florida vowed Friday to take their redistricting case to the U.S. Supreme Court after a Miami judge squashed their challenge to a state constitutional amendment limiting how districts are drawn for congressional elections.

Federal Judge Ursula Ungaro, following a short hearing in Miami federal court, ruled that the amendment passed by a majority of Florida voters last November did not violate the U.S. Constitution, as minority House members Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, argued in their lawsuit.

Amendment 6 forbids the state Legislature from drawing congressional boundaries that favor a political party or incumbent — so-called gerrymandering.

Lawmakers are set to begin the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting in January.

After their legal defeat, Diaz-Balart and Brown, continued to make their case outside the courthouse, arguing that only the Florida Legislature — not voters through a referendum — can control how congressional districts are designed under the federal Constitution.

The veteran lawmakers said their aim was not to preserve their political bases, but to ensure that Hispanic and African-American voters can elect minorities to Congress in a state that had none not so long ago.

"I am disappointed in the judge's ruling," said Brown, a 20-year House member who was among the first black candidates elected from Florida to Congress in 1992. "But this is step one. We're going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."

"We have been working hard to make sure minorities have the right to elect candidates of their choice," said Diaz-Balart, a 10-year House veteran whose district includes parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"It doesn't affect the seat I represent one iota," he said.

Lawyers for Diaz-Balart and Brown contend that Amendment 6 — passed by 63 percent of Florida voters — was a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Elections Clause because it was not approved by state legislators.

"The people of Florida never had the power to do anything with respect to congressional redistricting," argued attorney George Meros Jr., representing the state House, which intervened in the congressional members' lawsuit.

Attorney Stephen Cody, representing those members, said "that power must be exercised by the Legislature."

Lawyers for the other side pointed out that the Legislature itself approved the voter initiative and referendum process in 1968. The revisions to the Florida Constitution did not restrict what subjects voters could put on the ballot.

"The Legislature created the process by which the initiative passed, and the Legislature will have the last word," said Jon Mills, a former Florida House speaker representing five minority Democratic lawmakers.

Ungaro, persuaded by that argument, sided with the Florida Secretary of State's office, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the five individual Democratic state lawmakers. They contended voters had every right to initiate and approve the amendment regulating the boundaries of congressional districts.

After Friday's one-hour hearing, Ungaro ruled in a prepared 22-page opinion that the state amendment is a "valid regulation of the legislative process'' under the U.S. Constitution.

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, said he was surprised by how quickly the judge ruled, but not by her decision.

"This was a stark attack by the Legislature on the powers of the people," Simon said

Dan Gelber, a former Democratic state senator from Miami Beach, agreed.

"It's really unfortunate that the citizens have to protect themselves from their own elected officials," said Gelber, general counsel for a coalition, Fair Districts, that successfully pushed the ballot amendment last year.

At Friday's hearing, Harry Thomas, attorney for the Florida Secretary of State, argued that state lawmakers are still allowed to finalize the congressional districts — despite the amendment's limitations.

"The Legislature still has the authority to draw the district lines," Thomas said. "The amendment only requires that they consider certain criteria in doing so."

Among other things, Amendment 6 requires that boundaries not be drawn to favor a political party or incumbent; that the districts should be compact rather than sprawling; and that districts cannot be designed to shut racial or language minorities out of the political process.

The intended purpose: to end the gerrymandering of districts, in which lawmakers design boundaries favorable to their own election prospects or political party.

In 1992, for example, districts were created that led to the election of Brown and two other African-Americans to Congress from Florida for the first time since the Civil War, but made neighboring districts more solidly Republican — a pattern known as "bleaching."

That year, the GOP aligned with minorities to carve out those districts, which ultimately led to Republican dominance of Florida's congressional delegation.

Federal judge upholds Florida redistricting amendment 09/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 1:41pm]

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