MIAMI (AP) _ A federal judge on Friday upheld a Florida constitutional amendment imposing new rules restricting how congressional districts are drawn, rejecting a lawsuit by two members of Congress and the state House of Representatives claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and Democrat Corrine Brown, the two U.S. House members, argued that under the U.S. Constitution only the Florida Legislature _ not voters through a referendum _ can control how congressional districts are designed. State committees are currently meeting to begin that once-in-a-decade process, which will come together in a January legislative session.
But U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sided with the Florida Secretary of State's office, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and five individual Democratic state lawmakers who contended voters had every right last November to initiate and overwhelmingly approve Amendment 6, which enacted the new rules.
In a 22-page order, Ungaro concluded that the Florida Constitution “authorizes the people to participate in the lawmaking process.''
“Once the people of Florida act to limit the Legislature's options through a constitutional amendment, the new constitutional provision binds the Legislature,'' the judge wrote.
Harry Thomas, attorney for the Florida Secretary of State, noted at a hearing Friday that state lawmakers still must finalize the congressional districts even with the new amendment in place.
“The Legislature still has the authority to draw the district lines,'' Thomas said. “The amendment only requires that they consider certain criteria in doing so.''
Among other things, Amendment 6 requires that boundaries not be drawn to favor a political party or incumbent; that the districts should be compact rather than sprawling; and that districts cannot be designed to shut racial or language minorities out of the political process. It passed with more than 60 percent of the vote last year.
The aim is to curb so-called gerrymandering of districts, in which lawmakers design boundaries favorable to their own election prospects or contort them into unusual geographic shapes for the advantage of one political party or the other.
In 1992, for example, districts were created that led to the election of Brown and two other African-Americans to Congress from Florida for the first time since the Civil War _ but made neighboring districts much more solidly Republican. That year, the GOP aligned with minorities to carve out those districts, which ultimately led to Republican dominance of Florida's congressional delegation.
Voters last year approved an identical amendment governing state legislative districts, but it was not challenged by the lawsuit.
After the ruling, Diaz-Balart and Brown said they intended to appeal, even to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“I am disappointed,'' Brown said. “When you are disappointed, what do you do? You go on to take the next step, and that's what we're going to do.''
A statement from Katherine Betta, spokeswoman for Republican state House Speaker Dean Cannon, said officials there would review the ruling to determine whether to also appeal.
Their challenge centered on the U.S. Constitution's Elections Clause, which states that the “times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.'' Amendment 6 violates that clause, they contend, because it was not approved by state lawmakers but by voters acting independently.
“The people of Florida never had the power to do anything with respect to congressional redistricting,'' said George Meros Jr., representing the state House. “This is about performing the duties required by the federal Constitution.''
But lawyers for the other side noted that the Legislature itself approved the voter initiative and referendum process in 1968 revisions to the Florida Constitution and did not restrict what subjects voters could put on the ballot.
“The Legislature created the process by which the initiative passed, and the Legislature will have the last word,'' said Jon Mills, a former Florida House speaker representing the five minority lawmakers.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, praised Ungaro for her ruling.
“The decision today upholds the clear will of the people _ the fair districting process can now proceed,'' he said.