Jan 10 (Reuters) - A day after the Supreme Court heard
arguments in a Texas redistricting battle, another
redistricting case with potential national implications takes
center stage, this time in Florida.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit
will hear a challenge in a racially-charged lawsuit over an
amendment to Florida's constitution. Lawmakers have sued to try
to block the amendment -- passed by voter ballot in 2010 --
which they say violates the U.S. Constitution because it strips
the legislature of its right to regulate elections.
An African-American Democrat and a Hispanic Republican,
joined by Florida's House of Representatives, sued Florida in
2010, arguing that the so-called Fair Districts amendment
dilutes the voting power of minorities. They also say it
violates the Elections Clause of the Constitution, which gives
state legislatures the power to regulate the time, place and
manner of congressional elections.
The Florida issues echo, but differ, from those in the
Texas fight, which the Supreme Court justices will decide by
the end of this term.
In Texas, the dispute involves challenges under the 1965
Voting Rights Act, particularly a requirement that states with
a history of discrimination obtain court approval for
redistricting plans. The case centers on maps drawn up by a San
Antonio federal court, which Republican state officials say
went too far and should have deferred to maps approved by the
Republican-controlled state legislature.
A number of states around the country, including California
and Arizona, have established commissions that limit the state
legislatures' influence over the redistricting process. A win
for the challengers in the Florida case could be a blow for
As often happens after the once-a-decade census, there have
been dozens of challenges to new congressional maps. In the
wake of the 2010 census, 115 redistricting challenges have been
filed in state and federal courts around the country. That is
down from 149 filed after the 2000 census, but more challenges
are likely to be filed, according Justin Levitt, a professor at
Loyola Law School, who tracks redistricting cases. "This is
only the beginning," Levitt said.
The Florida fight grows out of longstanding political and
racial tensions in the state. Before 1992, Florida had not
elected a single African-American representative since the
Reconstruction Era. But in that year, Republicans joined forces
with black and Hispanic lawmakers to push for maps that
consolidated minority voters in a handful of districts. The
strategy helped minority candidates from those districts, but
also made the surrounding districts more Republican, causing
the Democratic Party to lose its longstanding control of the
Corrine Brown, an African-American Democrat who filed the
suit, was one beneficiary. She was elected as U.S.
Representative for Florida's Third Congressional District in
1993, thanks to the percentage of black voters in the
oddly-shaped district, which zigzags from Jacksonville south to
Orlando. That year, two other districts also elected
African-Americans to Congress.
Brown, who filed the suit with fellow Representative Mario
Diaz-Balart, said that the Fair Districts amendment threatens
to reverse the gains in minority representation by fragmenting
black and Latino voters.
The amendment requires new districts to be compact,
adopting the existing borders of cities and counties.
Proponents of the amendment "believe that by eliminating
minority districts, they can pick up some white Democrat
congressional seats," Diaz-Balart said in an interview with
Reuters. He said his own position is not at risk, but that the
amendment could jeopardize at least two African-American seats
The challengers' main ammunition is a 1995 decision in U.S.
Term Limits Inc v. Thornton in which the Supreme Court ruled
that states cannot use a constitutional amendment to impose
term limits on members of the U.S. Congress stricter than those
specified in the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, states cannot
limit a legislature's redistricting powers under the Elections
Clause, the suit claims.
Opponents accuse Brown, who declined to comment on the
case, and Diaz-Balart of acting out of self-interest.
"Republicans have rallied behind Brown because they are in
a position of power, and what she's trying to protect is their
ability to stay in power," said Leon Russell, vice chairman of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,
which has intervened in the suit on behalf of Florida. Russell
said some districts now contain a higher percentage of minority
voters than needed to elect a candidate of their choice,
solidifying Republican control.
The state is relying on two Supreme Court cases, which it
says support the right of voters to limit the legislature's
redistricting powers. In the 1916 case Ohio ex rel Davis v.
Hildebrant, the Supreme Court allowed Ohio citizens through a
voter referendum to veto a congressional redistricting plan
passed by the state legislature. In Smiley v. Holm in 1932, the
high court found the Minnesota governor's veto power could
trump the legislature's plan.
"I think the complaint is just frivolous," said Laughlin
McDonald, a lawyer for the ACLU defending the amendment. He
said the Miami trial judge agreed, rejecting the challenge last
If the 11th Circuit were to find the amendment
unconstitutional, states that have taken steps to regulate
redistricting could be affected, McDonald said. The independent
commissions that states including California and Arizona have
established to make redistricting less partisan could be called
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Stephen Cody, pointed to
California's commission as one of the most extreme, taking
redistricting out of the hands of the legislature. But he said
he had not examined the details to know whether it's
The Florida case is Corrine Brown et al v. State of Florida
et al, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No.
For Brown et al: Gregory Garre of Latham & Watkins.
For Florida et al: Daniel Nordby of the Florida Department
of State; Michael DeSanctis of Jenner & Block.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes)
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