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Court upholds Fair Districts; ruling sets stage of redistricting showdown

A Federal appeals court Tuesday rejected a challenge to Florida’s Amendment 6. It’s one of the Fair Districts Amendments added to the constitution by voters to curb gerrymandering. A three-judge panel rebuffed efforts by U.S. Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Corrine Brown to throw out the guidelines for drawing legislative and congressional districts. James Call reports the ruling was handed down two days before the Florida House is scheduled to debate new political maps for the fall election.

Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, and Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, opposed the Fair District’s amendment from the very beginning. The two benefit from a plan hatched by Republicans and African-American Democrats in 1992 to draw minority-access districts. Here’s Diaz-Balart speaking against the amendments, one for congress the other for the statehouse in 2010 before voters approved them.

“{These are the bleaching amendments. These amendments will have the effect of bleaching the state of Florida as the way it was before 1992 when minorities did not have the ability to elect the candidate of their choice. That is what it is about here. It is unworkable and it will have a devastating effect on minorities across the state of Florida.”

That was the opening shot against Amendment 6, which applies to congressional seats.  The voters didn’t agree with Diaz-Balart’s protest and approved the amendments with 62-percent of the vote. By the time the dispute landed before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the opponents arguments were reduced to, “the power to change congressional redistricting rules resides solely with the Legislature and not the voters through a referendum.”

Dan Gelber is the general counsel for Fair Districts and says the three judge panel took 32-pages to explain why that sentence is at odds with American tradition and law.

“The court obviously dismissed out of hand by saying it is precisely the power of the people to create criteria that will guide the legislature in creation of districts. All the Fair Districts amendments do is give the criteria by which the Legislature has to follow. It is perfectly appropriate and any other interpretation would mean that the Legislature is more important than the people and in our constitution the very first line of it is that political power rests with the people.”

The Fair Districts amendments, (number 6 for congress and Amendment 5) for the state legislature, require that districts be compact rather than sprawling; that they not favor a candidate or party or shut racial or language minorities out of the political process. By rejecting the challenge Gelber suggests that the court also sent a clear message to the Florida House of Representatives. It is helping pay for lawsuits challenging the voter approved amendments. Gelber says there should be no further appeals.

“Now it is time because of these amendments and because of what the people said they wanted to quit trying to implement them and to follow them and to follow the rule of law and our constitution.”

Ironically, the House’s Redistricting Committee Chairman says that is exactly what his committee did. Wesley Chapel Representative Will Weatherford is leading the House in drawing new political districts. After the committee approved the new maps, Weatherford said there has never been a more fair drawing of statehouse and congressional districts in history, or that he knows of.

“Based on newspaper articles I’ve read, by your very newspapers a third of the legislators in our chamber have been drawn out of their seats. There is not a single legislature in the history of America that I know without a court order that has drawn that many members out of their seats. We did it because that was what the constitution said we had to do. There was no politics involved this is something we had to do to follow the constitution.”

 However, the House has set aside time on both Thursday and Friday to debate the proposed maps for Florida’s 27 congressional seats, 40 state senate seats and 120 state representative seats. Fort Lauderdale representative Evan Jenne is the ranking Democrat on the House’s redistricting committee. He and other Democrats cast a series of no votes in committee, with little comment. He says he has been around the process long enough to know when he will get a straight answer.

“There are two things that make Tallahassee go round; money and partisanship. And this is 100-percent partisanship thing we are dealing with and we thought there were maps that could be done a little bit better. We felt there were some things that could have been better. And we just didn’t see them present, so.”

Jenne didn’t finish the thought but suggested that reporters wait until the redistricting bills to come up on the House Floor.  Speaker Dean Cannon says he wants to make sure there is appropriate and ample debate of the maps. The House is scheduled to be in session 15 hours Thursday and Friday. And a vote on all three maps is expected to be taken by the end of Friday. Speaker Cannon:

“I set aside time on Thursday and Friday because I expect to be on the floor Thursday and Friday and want to make sure there is appropriate and ample debate. And we’re a larger chamber than the senate and I don’t know what its intentions are but mine are not to do anything extraordinary to rush things along we will neither accelerate them or delay them. But I made time Friday we will be on the floor Friday and we will see how long it takes and handle it in the due course of things.”

Once the House approves the new maps it will send them to the Senate. And after the Senate passes the proposals the Florida Supreme Court will have 30 days to approve them.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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