A federal court Monday rejected a claim from U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, that a North Florida congressional district designed to elect a black candidate violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the Northern District of Florida is the latest in more than four years of legal challenges over Florida’s redistricting maps and is likely to bring some finality to the congressional map approved by the Florida Supreme Court last year.
Brown, joined by dozens of black voters from north and central Florida, argued that the new district's east-west configuration across the top of the state violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the black vote and disenfranchises black voters from electing their preferred candidates.
But the court ruled that the district’s configuration -- which was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court -- not only will benefit black voters in North Florida, but it also enabled the creation of District 10 in Orlando, which is "very likely" to elect the candidate of choice for 120,000 black voters there.
"The problem with Plaintiffs’ argument is that they simply have not produced evidence that racial-bloc voting in these other districts will defeat their candidates of choice,'' the court said.
"...In fact, what electoral evidence has been provided demonstrates the opposite—that in East-West District 5, the black-preferred candidate will prevail and in Congressional District 10, the black-preferred candidate will likely prevail more often than not."
Brown and the other plaintiffs wanted the court to prevent the map from being used to elect candidates in November, leaving candidates in limbo about what they will do.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, now could choose to challenge Brown in the district or run for a Republican-dominated District 2 also in North Florida. Several candidates, including former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, have already expressed an interest in running for the District 5 seat.
"I'm disappointed the Second Congressional District will be transformed from a fair, moderate district into two extreme partisan districts,'' Graham said in a statement Monday night. "Dividing Tallahassee hurts North Florida and our community. 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."
In the 26-page ruling, the court concluded that Brown and the plaintiffs presented no convincing evidence to support their claim that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat the black community’s preferred candidate. Instead, the court said, the new map may reduce the size of the black vote but it will not dilute it. Download Order in Brown's case
"A win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory,'' wrote Judges Robin Rosenbaum, Robert Hinkle and Mark Walker.
The court acknowledged the "appalling history and continuing legacy of racial discrimination in northeastern Florida" but said the anecdotal testimony of several local officials that blacks could not be elected to countywide offices was not enough to prove the district was invalid.
The League of Women Voters led the lawsuit to challenge the congressional map drawn by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, arguing that it was drawn to protect incumbents like Brown and GOP candidates, in violation of the violated the Fair Districts provisions of the state constitution.
After four-years of legal skirmishes, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the challengers last July and concluded that the map Florida had used in the last two congressional elections was invalid. When the Legislature could not agree on a new congressional plan during a special session last August, a lower court solicited maps and choose a map drawn by the League of Women Voters.
Brown has not indicated whether she would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.