Florida's long, twisted legal drama over its congressional districts may finally be reaching its end after a panel of federal judges on Monday rejected a push by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to throw out the current district boundaries.
Brown, a veteran member of Congress, argued that the current map, which dramatically altered her Jacksonville district, violates federal voting laws because it diluted the voting rights of minorities. But the panel of three judges disagreed sharply and said that Brown and her attorneys had not produced evidence to prove her case.
Brown, who had previously vowed to keep up the fight as long as she could, said in a brief statement that she was "extremely disappointed" and is reviewing the ruling with her attorneys. Any appeal, however, would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court since a three-judge panel handled the initial decision.
The decision could have immediate reverberations because the new map upends the state's political landscape and could lead to the defeat of several incumbents. The current map was approved by the state Supreme Court in December after a lengthy battle.
The new map, for example, puts U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who has been viewed as a rising star for Democrats, in a north Florida district that leans Republican and splits her home of Tallahassee. She has refused to make a decision on her political future because of the ongoing lawsuit. Brown's district has been shifted from one that stretches south to Orlando to one that now runs west to Tallahassee. She has already drawn challengers.
"I'm disappointed the second congressional District will be transformed from a fair, moderate district into two extreme partisan districts. Dividing Tallahassee hurts north Florida and our community," Graham said in a statement. "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. Though the maps may have changed, my commitment to public service has not."
Nearly six years ago, Florida voters approved the "Fair Districts" amendments, which mandated that state legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, challenged the congressional map first approved by the Florida Legislature in 2012, saying it violated the new standards. In a stinging ruling last July, the state Supreme Court said GOP operatives had "tainted" previous efforts to draw up maps and ordered that eight districts be redrawn.
GOP leaders returned during an August special session to adopt a new map, but they deadlocked over which map to pass. In the end, the Florida Supreme Court adopted a map that incorporated changes pushed by the groups that sued the Legislature.
Some Republicans have opted to either change districts or not run for re-election for their House seats based on the proposed changes. The new map has also prompted former Gov. Charlie Crist, who switched to the Democratic Party in 2013, to run for a seat in Pinellas County. Currently the GOP holds a 17-10 edge in Florida's congressional delegation but that could narrow this fall under the new boundaries.
In her lawsuit, Brown had argued that the new configuration of her district could make it harder for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice. She had also contended that the new map included dozens of prisons, which masked the true number of eligible voters. But the judges pointed out that an analysis of voting data showed that black candidates including President Barack Obama still won in the new district.
"The evidence demonstrates that black preferred candidates should generally continue to win east-west District 5 with about sixty percent of the vote," states the ruling. "And a win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory."