Judge: GOP Must Eliminate Black, Hispanic-Majority Districts

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL). Photo credit: news4jax.com.

Florida Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled the state’s GOP-controlled legislature must eliminate a black-majority voting district and a neighboring Hispanic-plurality district. According to Lewis, the black-and Hispanic-friendly districts cemented Republican advantages in other parts of the state.

Florida voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting the legislature from drawing voting districts in a way to benefit incumbents or a particular party. The amendment also specified legislators cannot draw districts in a way that impairs equal opportunity for racial minorities to wield political clout or elect representatives of their choice.

After the 2010 census, the Florida legislature was required to redraw the state’s congressional districts. When the Republican-controlled legislature submitted the new congressional district map, the League of Women Voters of Florida, a liberal activist group closely aligned with Florida Democrats, filed a lawsuit claiming the revised congressional map improperly favored Republicans.

Lewis, a Democrat-appointed judge in the Florida panhandle, ruled that nearly all of the 27 congressional districts drawn by the legislature comply with specified standards for compactness and existing political and geographical boundaries. Nevertheless, Lewis singled out two districts in central Florida that he claimed violated the standards.

Lewis ruled that District 5 — which gives communities of black voters stretching from Orlando to Jacksonville a black-majority district — must be dissolved

Similarly, Judge Lewis ruled that District 10, which includes a small appendage at its boundary with District 9 that enables District 9 to contain a Hispanic plurality, must similarly be redrawn to eliminate the Hispanic-friendly appendage.

Lewis claimed predominantly white voters in northern Florida will readily elect black and Hispanic political candidates, such that there is no justification for special districting considerations to give black and Hispanic voters equal opportunity to wield clout in the central and northern Florida politics.

The judge also ruled that efforts to enhance black and Hispanic political representation must have been motivated by a Republican desire to rig area districts in their favor. Lewis admitted there was no direct evidence of this, but he argued that the legislature adopted some districting suggestions made by Republican-aligned political consultants during public meetings and hearings on districting proposals.

Approving some aspects of districting proposals made by Republican-aligned political consultants during public hearings proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that partisan advantage motivated Republican legislators to draw Districts 5 and 9 in a manner that benefited black and Hispanic voters and candidates.

District 5 stands out from District 9 and the other Florida districts as being creatively drawn and lacking compactness. However, the 2010 redistricting process left District 5 largely intact in comparison to its pre-2010 boundaries. District 5 was initially created at the urging of largely Democratic black political advocates to give them an opportunity for representation in central and northern Florida politics.

Lewis’ ruling that Republicans “created” District 5 out of rank partisan motive defies the political history of the district and violates the constitutional amendment’s requirement that districts must “utilize existing political and geographic boundaries” and not impair “the equal opportunity of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a black woman representing District 5 in the U.S. Congress, called the panhandle judge’s ruling a threat “to every African-American elected official in every capacity.”

“Overturning the current District 5 map ignores the essential redistricting principle of maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts,” said Brown in a press statement. “Certainly, minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district ‘compactness,’ while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments minority communities across the state.”