ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ After a hard-fought political campaign, voters approved two measures last fall that would change how Florida's congressional and legislative districts are drawn every decade.
Now, the real brawling is starting in the courts.
Two lawsuits filed in the wake of last November's election could determine the fate of the two amendments to Florida's constitution, which supporters say will help end gerrymandering, the process of tailoring districts to favor a particular party, incumbent or demographic group. Opponents claim the amendments will dilute the voting power of minorities.
The new rules require that a district's boundaries be continuously connected and as close to a square or circle as possible. Districts must be equal in population and make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries. The amendments prohibit drawing districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party and say districts should not be drawn to deny minorities the chance to elect representatives of their choice.
Voters approved the pair of amendments, one for state legislative districts and the other for federal congressional districts, by 62 percent of the vote. Florida lawmakers won't start the redistricting process until next year. A trial on the lawsuits could start this spring.
At stake is how Florida's congressional and legislative districts will be drawn. The Sunshine State was one of the few states to gain extra congressional districts, an additional two, bringing the state's total number of districts after next year to 27.
The legal fights have taken some turns that are as twisted as some of Florida's most awkwardly drawn districts.
The day after voters approved the changes, two U.S. representative from opposite sides of the aisle challenged the constitutionality of the amendment dealing with congressional districts. U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Democratic, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, asked a federal judge in South Florida to stop its enforcement, claiming it violates a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits any dilution to the ability of racial minorities to elect their preferred candidates.
Brown's district, stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando, has a voting-age population that is almost half black. Diaz-Balart's South Florida district has a voting-age population that is more than half Hispanic.
About a month later, members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida asked to join the case as defendants, claiming their interests weren't represented by the parties involved in the lawsuit. They were soon joined by members of the Florida State Conference of NAACP branches and Democracia Ahora, a Hispanic advocacy group. All the groups had worked toward the amendments' approval.
In their court papers, members of the NAACP and Democracia Ahora called the plaintiffs “entrenched incumbent members of Congress'' who wanted to take away the new protections against political gerrymandering. The two civil rights groups said the amendments offered extra protections for minority voters that previously was missing from the state constitution. The NAACP and Democracia Ahora also argued that their rights on this matter wouldn't be represented by newly elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott, nor his secretary of state, Kurt Browning.
Browning was a public leader opposing the amendments, and three days after Scott took office in January, the state quietly withdrew a request for federal approval, or “preclearance,'' that is required under the Voting Rights Act. The request was filed in December before then-Gov. Charlie Crist left office. The “preclearance'' process vets any changes that could dilute the voting power of minorities.
Both the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Brown and Diaz-Balart, and now the defendants, Scott and Browning, oppose the redistricting amendments, the civil rights groups said, “creating a perfect storm of troubling circumstances requiring intervention.''
The withdrawal of the request for approval from the U.S. Department of Justice “appeared calculated to delay and possibly thwart implementations of the amendments,'' the civil rights groups said.
So the civil rights groups, along with the League of Women Voters and five voters from Monroe County in the Florida Keys, filed another lawsuit, this one against Scott and Browning. They said that since Monroe County is one of five Florida counties subject to preclearance for any changes to voting practices the amendments needed to be vetted by the U.S. Department of Justice. They said the absence of a preclearance process will deprive them of their rights under the Voting Rights Act.
It could take months before the legal battles over the redistricting amendments are over. But Florida has some time. Redistricting plans don't have to be approved and implemented until June 2012, one of the latest deadlines in the nation.
That leaves plenty of time for the courts to decide the two lawsuits, Brown said.
“The lawsuit will not delay Florida's redistricting efforts in any way,'' she said.