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Federal court refuses to block new Florida U.S. House map

Ruling is a blow to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who objected to changes in her district

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

florida mugTALLAHASSEE, Florida (CFP) — A panel of federal judges has refused to block a court-ordered redistricting map for Florida that drastically altered the majority-black congressional district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown.

The three-judge panel also refused to issue an injunction of its ruling pending a possible appeal, which clears the way for qualifying for congressional races to begin June 24.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

The decision may affect the fate of two incumbent congresswomen: Brown, a black Jacksonville Democrat whose district will become more white, and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district will become more Republican.

The judges ruled that Brown had not proven that the new configuration of Florida’s 5th District, with a reduced black voting age population, violated the federal Voting Rights Act, citing evidence that a black candidate was still likely to win the seat.

As originally drawn, Brown’s district began in Jacksonville and meandered south down the St. Johns River valley to Orlando. The new configuration instead goes directly east from Jacksonville, stretching more than 200 miles to Tallahassee.

The Florida Supreme Court had struck down the state’s U.S. House map on the grounds that it violated a constitutional amendment passed by state voters in 2010 that outlawed partisan gerrymandering. When the state legislature could not agree on a new map, the Supreme Court drew one instead.

Brown had challenged the new configuration of the 5th District, which has a black voting age population of 45 percent, compared to 50 percent in the old map.

The new map also put a number of large state prisons in rural North Florida into Brown’s district, adding about 17,000 prisoners–half of whom are black–to the district’s population. Prisoners are counted in the voting age population, even though they can’t vote, which Brown charged further diluted the black vote.

Much of the new territory in the reconfigured 5th District comes out of Graham’s neighboring 2nd District, a swing district that will now be more Republican.

Brown’s suit presented the federal judges with a novel legal question–how to resolve the conflict between the state constitution’s prohibition on gerrymandering with the Voting Right Act’s requirement to maximize minority electoral opportunity.

Brown had argued that the federal law should prevail. But the judges ruled that she had not proven that the Supreme Court erred in drawing its map, citing evidence from experts showing that even with a lower black voting age population, the 5th District is still likely to elect a black candidate.

The judges also noted that 120,000 black voters in the St. Johns valley and Orlando were moved from the 5th District to the new 10th District, which could also make a black candidate competitive there.

The Republican incumbent in that district, U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, has already announced he will leave that seat and instead seek election in the neighboring 11th District, where U.S Rep. Rich Nugent is retiring.

Brown issued a statement saying she was “extremely disappointed” in the ruling. She hasn’t yet indicated whether she will appeal or if she will run in the reconfigured district.

U.S. House nominee Gwen Graham

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham

Graham, too, expressed disappointment in the ruling, saying it will transform her 2nd District “from a fair, moderate district into two extreme partisan districts.”

“Now that the lengthy legal challenges to the maps have been completed, I will make a decision as to what’s next as soon as possible,” she said in a statement. “Though the maps may have changed, my commitment to public service has not.”

Graham was the only Democrat in the South who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2012. There has been speculation that she might seek statewide office if her House district becomes untenable.


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