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Judge Throws Out Challenge to Fair District Amendment, Panicking Motley Incumbents

| September 9, 2011

Thanks to Piet Mondrian.

Thanks to Piet Mondrian.

A federal district court judge in Miami upheld controversial new redistricting standards for Congressional maps Friday, but opponents vowed to appeal in a move that could result in lawmakers drawing maps based on rules still being challenged in court.

Judge Ursula Ungaro, who said she had essentially made up her mind before Friday’s hearing but wanted to see if oral arguments could sway her, went ahead with an order she had already written. (See the full decision below.)

Ungaro rejected the argument that the anti-gerrymandering amendments put into the constitution last year amounted to state voters meddling in the redistricting powers granted to the Legislature by the U.S. Constitution.

“Amendment VI does not supplant the Florida Legislature,” Ungaro ruled. “Rather, it attaches a series of conditions, adopted in accordance with the state constitution, to eventual legislative action on redistricting.”

The two members of Congress who brought the case — U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican — promised to appeal.

“It’s just step one, and so we’re going on, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary,” Brown said.

That could complicate efforts for the Legislature to complete the once-a-decade redistricting process. Lawmakers will begin considering maps later this month, with a session expected to be dominated by redistricting starting in January.

The legal dispute has caused an at-times bizarre series of alliances. Brown has joined not only Diaz-Balart, but also the staunchly conservative Republican majority in the state House in fighting against the standards. The members of Congress argue the standards could dilute minority representation in Washington, in particular, though also in Tallahassee.

The NAACP and Hispanic advocacy group Democracia, though, support the new standards and say concerns about the impact on minority districts are baseless.


Senate leaders, who joined the House in battling the amendments during last year’s campaign, have said they intend to follow the standards. But House leaders filed to intervene in the lawsuit and have fought the amendments in court. A spokeswoman for Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, did not directly answer a question about whether the House would back an appeal.

“The House sought intervenor status in this litigation in order to seek an answer to a constitutional question involving the responsibility of the House to redraw Florida’s congressional districts,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said. “We respect the ability of the trial judge to provide an answer to that question. We look forward to reviewing the judge’s order and determining whether further action is appropriate.”

While House leaders have repeated the contention that the chamber is simply seeking clarification from the courts, some opponents noted Friday that an attorney for the House argued forcefully against the amendment, voicing support for the idea that the authority to draw the lines ultimately lies with the Legislature.

Former Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber, now serving as general counsel for Fair Districts Now, said lawmakers need to drop their appeals and turn their attention to map drawing.

“It’s sad that Floridians had to hire an army of lawyers to protect themselves from their own elected officials,” he said.

But Stephen Cody, an attorney representing Brown and Diaz-Balart, said Fair Districts Now and other supporters of the standards have yet to release their own maps — in part because their true aim is to gum up the works in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

“They think they can get a better deal in the courts,” Cody said.

Gelber brushed off that suggestion.

“It’s the Florida Legislature’s constitutional obligation to draw a map,” he said. “They need to draw it, they need to draw it fairly and they need to draw it soon. … It is silly for them to say they’re waiting for somebody else to do their job.”

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