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Hours after redistricting amendments pass, lawsuit targets one

TALLAHASSEE — Less than 24 hours after its surprise passage, a constitutional amendment that restricts state lawmakers when they draw new congressional districts was challenged in court by two members of Congress.

The amendment, along with a similar proposal concerning state legislative districts that is not under legal challenge, passed with nearly 63 percent of the vote Tuesday despite polls indicating both would fail.

In filing suit against the state just before 2 a.m. Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, leveled two basic claims against Amendment 6:

• Florida voters can't change the standards for congressional district-drawing because the issue is governed by the U.S. Constitution, not the Florida Constitution.

• Because Amendment 6 prohibits lawmakers from intending to favor incumbents when they draw districts, it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires lawmakers to weigh incumbency to ensure that already-elected minority legislators remain in power.

"You can't take that out of the mix," said Stephen Cody, a Palmetto Bay lawyer for Diaz-Balart and Brown.

J. Gerald Hebert, a Voting Rights Act expert and supporter of both redistricting amendments, says the lawsuit filed by the two incumbents is "frivolous and misleading."

"They're misinterpreting the Voting Rights Act," he said. "It protects voters. Not incumbent politicians."

In a statement, Brown said, "I am absolutely convinced that if they are carried out as prescribed, our state will immediately revert to the time period prior to 1992, when Florida was devoid of African-American or Hispanic representation."

Approval of the two proposals was a rare bright spot for Democrats on Tuesday in an election that saw Republicans pick up four new members of Congress, veto-proof majorities in the Legislature and narrowly hold onto the Governor's Mansion.

The once-a-decade redistricting effort is the essence of political power-brokering. The ruling party tries to draw districts that spread their voters throughout more districts, while the minority party's voters are packed into relatively few districts.

The process is slated to begin as soon as December, when lawmakers receive U.S. census data that could give Florida two more seats in Congress. The new maps will be crucial for both parties, as Republicans hope to maintain lopsided legislative and congressional majorities. Democrats hope the new restrictions will result in more competitive races.

Cody said he hopes for an expedited ruling on Wednesday's challenge.

The lawsuit targets restrictions on drawing congressional districts addressed in Amendment 6. There are not yet challenges to Amendment 5, which affects state-level districts.

The text of the amendments sounds straightforward, saying no district shall be drawn "with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent" and that districts shall not deny minorities the ability to "elect representatives of their choice."

The amendments also say that lawmakers can't violate federal law when they draw the districts.

"We're tired of politicians picking their voters," said Ellen Freidin, chairwoman of Fair Districts Florida, which sponsored the amendments. "In a democracy, people should pick their politicians."

But opponents say the amendments are a sneaky way for Democrats to sue over the districts.

"This is about intent. Any time you start talking about 'intent' you've got a lawsuit on your hands," said Miguel De Grandy, a redistricting expert and lawyer for the state House of Representatives, which was named in the suit along with the governor and Senate.

Added Cody: "The ulterior motive was to take redistricting away from the Legislature and put it in the hands of the courts. They figure they'll get a better deal from the courts."

Fair Districts spent almost $9 million in its campaign to get the proposals on the ballot and persuade voters to approve them.

Most of the money came from liberal special interests such as unions and trial lawyers.

The biggest donors include $1.2 million from the National Education Association and another $650,000 from the state arm of the teachers union. Nearly $900,000 came from liberal entrepreneur Christopher Findlater, and $625,000 came from a major service workers union. Another $900,000 came from a group linked to liberal donor George Soros.

The group opposing the amendments spent about $3.6 million. The bulk of that, $2.6 million, came from the Republican Party of Florida. Other large donors include $278,000 from the Florida Realtors Association and $200,000 from the wife of the owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino. The state's two largest sugar companies also gave $100,000 apiece.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com or (850) 222-3095.

Hours after redistricting amendments pass, lawsuit targets one 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:50pm]
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