Court Rulings Not Breaking Congresswoman's Way

Apr 8, 2016

Jefferson County's map drafter Kurt Spitzer answering questions about one of the draft maps.
Credit Nick Evans

Embattled Democratic Congresswoman Corinne Brown is holding her breath that a panel of federal judges will agree to throw out the newest iteration of Florida’s congressional map.  Recent rulings may not be helping her cause.

A few weeks ago, Representative Corrine Brown brought three busloads of supporters to a Tallahassee federal courthouse in support of her bid to throw out Florida’s new congressional map.  The Jacksonville Democrat then took the group to a Tallahassee buffet restaurant—addressing those supporters with a bullhorn.

“Twenty five prisons,” she shouted the assembled crowd, “the present district have three.”

“Twenty five prisons—there is not another district in the entire United States with twenty five prisons.”

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL)
Credit Nick Evans

Brown says this artificially inflates the African American population, and constitutes a violation of the voting rights act—because it diminishes the voting power of the minority population.  And with recent events in Jefferson County, it might seem like she’s got a point.

The Jefferson County Commission and school board approved new municipal boundaries a week ago.  County officials submitted the new plan in federal court Monday.  They were forced into the changes because one district houses a large prison, and the ACLU argued counting the prisoners gave that district’s voters greater representation in government.

“Well, the Jefferson County redistricting case does have some similarities to Corrine Brown’s argument,” University of Central Florida Political Scientist Aubrey Jewett allows.

He says both cases are looking at what do with a disenfranchised population of inmates, but they rely on different arguments.  The Jefferson case was built on simple population deviation—the difference in total population between districts, but Brown’s case is looking at minority representation.  Jewett says the ruling in the Jefferson case is probably too narrow to support Brown

“He basically made a very narrow decision and specifically said this would probably be different if we were talking about state House districts or state Senate districts or even congressional districts,” Jewett explains.

“So again it’s related to Corinne Brown’s issue absolutely because they’re both looking at counting—whether or not you can count prison population,” he continues, “but I’m not sure from the Jefferson County ruling again that we can guess what the federal courts may do with Corinne Brown’s suit.”

Muddying the water further is the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Evenwel v. Abbot— and some of the hypotheticals tossed around in oral argument might sound a bit familiar.

“You have a rural district with a huge prison and very few other inhabitants and you have a neighboring district that has no prison,” Justice Samuel Alito offered, pressing one of the lawyers on his argument.

“So in one district you have 10 percent of the population are eligible voters and in the other district 90 percent of the population are eligible voters—that would be ok?”

In a unanimous opinion the court determined Texas lawmakers can count disenfranchised individuals—whether they be in prison, undocumented, or simply too young to vote—when they reapportion the state. 

The challengers argued only voters should be counted.

“What the court said was that while the state does not necessarily have to use all residents when they’re counting up and getting ready to apportion their districts, they are certainly allowed to do that,” Jewett explains.

So for those keeping score, there’s a federal district court saying Jefferson County can’t count prisoners, while the U.S. Supreme Court is saying Texas can. 

But neither decision seems to help Brown. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling backs up the Florida Legislature’s use of total population, but in court, Brown has largely shied away from that line of argument anyway.   Meanwhile, it seems the judge in the Jefferson County ruling crafted his decision narrowly enough to exclude Brown’s claim. 

The same judge is presiding in Brown’s case.