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U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown challenges new congressional district boundaries

TALLAHASSEE — Arguing that an east-west configuration for her district "combines far-flung communities worlds apart culturally and geographically," lawyers for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown asked a federal judge Tuesday to void Florida's latest congressional redistricting plan.

The complaint marks the next phase of a legal battle over the state's political boundaries that has raged for nearly four years. The first two drafts of a congressional plan — approved by the Legislature in 2012 and tweaked in 2014 — were thrown out by state courts for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

But the reorientation of Brown's congressional district, which has long ambled from Jacksonville to Orlando but now would run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west, prompted the Democratic congresswoman to file suit this year against the change. After the Florida Supreme Court officially approved the new district early this month, Brown was allowed to update her case Tuesday.

The challenge goes to great lengths to portray the areas encompassed by the Jacksonville-to-Orlando version of the district as a distinct region that includes African-American voters with similar interests and problems. It traces a history that includes the Ku Klux Klan, baseball player Jackie Robinson's spring training and the book "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Dozens of voters from the area joined Brown's lawsuit.

"Black voters have reaped substantial benefits by being in a district in which they can elect a candidate of their choice, including having a representative who understands the needs of the community she represents, brings infrastructure money to the district, helps black residents obtain government contracts, brings job fairs to the district, and is very accessible to her constituents," the complaint says.

Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando seat has long been at the center of conflicts in Florida over gerrymandered districts. Critics see it as an attempt to aid Republican campaigns, especially those in Central Florida, by concentrating African-American Democratic voters in a single district. But supporters say it ensures those voters the chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

The congresswoman has repeatedly argued that the east-west configuration of the district would not elect an African-American Democrat, despite the fact that President Barack Obama carried the revamped district by more than 28 points in 2012.

The complaint says the new district violates the federal Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution and the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" amendments to the Florida Constitution --- though federal courts are traditionally wary of interpreting state law.

It says the black voting-age population of the district would drop by about 5 percentage points under the new plan and that a disproportionate number of African-American felons --- particularly those living in prisons in the area --- skews those statistics.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the district would allow African-American voters to dominate the Democratic primary and that the district's Democratic tilt means that candidates favored by African-Americans should be able to be re-elected.

The court's two black members also sharply rebuked Brown, though not by name, in the opinion early this month. Brown had compared the changes in her district to slavery during an earlier press conference.

"The efforts to paint this process as partisan or invoke the antebellum period are an unjustified attack on the integrity of our judicial system," wrote Justice James E.C. Perry, in an opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince. " ... Originally, the right to vote was limited to white male landowners. Others had to fight and die for the privilege to be extended to them. It is an insult to their struggle for politicians to now use that sacrifice for personal benefit."

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, the voting-rights groups that led the successful legal fight to require redrawn districts, have until Jan. 12 to file an amended motion to intervene in the federal case.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown challenges new congressional district boundaries 12/29/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2015 7:39pm]
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