TALLAHASSEE — A federal court will hear arguments next week in Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s battle against a redistricting plan that would force her to run in a dramatically reshaped district stretching across 200 miles of North Florida.
Brown is seeking an injunction that would block the state from using the new Congressional District 5, arguing that it violates the federal Voting Rights Act and would harm the ability of black votes to elect a candidate of their choice. A three-judge panel is scheduled to hear arguments March 25 in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.
The Jacksonville Democrat wants the federal court to order the continued use of a district configuration that extends from Duval to Orange counties and picks up large numbers of black voters. Similar configurations have helped elect Brown to Congress since 1992, though critics have frequently derided them as a classic example of gerrymandering.
“While North-South Congressional District 5 has been deemed by some as one of the most gerrymandered in the United States, there is a clear and legal reason for this to be the case,” said a court document filed by Brown’s legal team in December. “Simply, it is to uphold the intent and spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The revamped district, which goes from Duval to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, stems from a long-running legal battle waged by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and other parties. Those groups successfully argued that districts should be redrawn because state lawmakers violated a 2010 anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment commonly known as the “Fair Districts” amendment.
The Florida Supreme Court in December approved a new map that changed Brown’s district, along with other districts throughout the state. That came after the Legislature could not agree on how to redraw the map. Brown’s challenge focuses only on her district, but a ruling in her favor would likely ripple through the state.
The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and their allies intervened in Brown’s federal-court case. They contend, in part, that the new design of Congressional District 5 does not diminish the chances of black voters electing a candidate of their choice. Also, they say Republicans designed the Duval-to-Orange configuration to pack black Democrats into a single district — helping elect GOP candidates in surrounding districts.
In their arguments, both sides point to districts that they say cover more than 200 miles.
“(Brown’s proposed) District 5 employs a series of hooks, tentacles, and appendages to draw African-American population not only from urban areas in Duval, Alachua, Orange, and Seminole counties, but also from rural territory in Marion, Clay, and Putnam counties and areas outside major cities in other counties,” said a document filed this month by attorneys for Brown’s opponents in the case. “The land bridges linking together these disparate communities — one of which is the mere width of a highway — produce a district that winds for over 200 miles between Jacksonville and Orlando.”
The Legislature and Secretary of State Ken Detzner, meanwhile, have tried to keep their distance from the federal-court case. In a document filed in January, attorneys for the Legislature said state lawmakers did not sign off on the Duval-to-Gadsden configuration of Brown’s district.
“The Legislature did not pass a remedial plan (last year) … and the Supreme Court subsequently adopted a remedial plan designed by the challengers (the League of Women Voters and Common Cause) that contains an east-west configuration of District 5,” the January filing said. “Thus, the legislative parties are not responsible for either the current design of District 5 or the Supreme Court’s decision requiring its use in Florida’s congressional elections.”
Detzner, the state’s chief elections officer, has sought to be dismissed from the case, at least in part, because he said he is not responsible for redistricting. The federal court refused to dismiss Detzer from the case, prompting the secretary of state to take the issue to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That appeal is pending.