Appeals court upholds Fla. redistricting amendment

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

MIAMI — A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a challenge to Florida's Amendment 6, added to the state constitution by voters to curb so-called gerrymandering of congressional districts that historically protected incumbents or gave advantage to the political party in power.

The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuffed claims by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, and Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, that the power to change congressional redistricting rules resides solely with the Legislature and not the voters through a referendum.

"The lawmaking power in Florida expressly includes the power of the people to amend their constitution, and that is exactly what the people did here in passing Amendment 6," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus in the 32-page opinion, which affirmed a September ruling by a Miami federal judge.

Amendment 6 passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2010. Among other things, it requires that the 27 U.S. House of Representatives boundaries in Florida be compact rather than sprawling; that they not be drawn to favor incumbents or political parties; and that they not be designed to shut racial or language minorities out of the political process.

Diaz-Balart and Brown also claimed that those new rules usurped the Legislature's decision-making powers, but the court rejected that as well.

The Legislature still must draw the 27 new districts, which it is doing now. The Senate has passed its version of the map and the House is working on its blueprint. The final plan must be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

A key backer of Amendment 6, the Fair District coalition, contends that the proposals would unfairly perpetuate Republican dominance in a state evenly divided between Democrats and the GOP and would work to protect incumbents. A legal battle is considered inevitable; similar disputes in the past have wound up in court.

Diaz-Balart and Brown did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on whether they would ask the full appeals court to rehear the case or ask for U.S. Supreme Court review. The 11th Circuit judges noted that the Supreme Court has twice ruled that the term "Legislature" refers "not just to a state's legislative body but more broadly to the entire lawmaking process of the state."

In 1968, the Legislature itself approved constitutional revisions that included the voter initiative and referendum process that provides a pathway for people to put proposed amendments to a popular vote. There were no restrictions on the subject matter.

The two members of Congress who challenged the amendment were opposed by the Florida Secretary of State's office, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state House of Representatives and some individual lawmakers.

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