Inside the Lines: Why wasn't 'voting rights' argument made in 'Fair Districts' lawsuit?

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In their year-long crusade against the Fair Districts amendments approved by voters last November, one of the central planks in the argument raised by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., has been that the standards could cut back on minority representation, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

In fact, the idea that the new standards’ focus on compactness could undermine the basis for districts like Brown’s 3rd Congressional District — which scoops up black communities from Jacksonville to Orlando as it winds across Northeast Florida — was central to the first complaint filed hours after voters approved the amendments to the Florida Constitution in November.

But by late January, the voting rights argument was largely gone.

Instead, the focus of the lawsuit shifted to highlighting the U.S. Constitution’s designation of the Legislature as the part of state government with responsibility for drawing the lines. With few exceptions, the plaintiffs argued, lawmakers were relatively free to draw the lines however they saw fit.

In the meantime, the U.S. Justice Department did give its Voting Rights Act blessings to the plan. But Christian Herren, chief of the voting section of the department’s Civil Rights Division, also pointed out an important caveat.

“However, we note that Section 5 expressly provides that the failure of the Attorney General to object does not bar subsequent litigation to enjoin the enforcement of the changes,” Herren said in the letter.

But for whatever reason, the Voting Rights Act argument never came up in Friday’s oral arguments. Even some of those involved in the lawsuit against the standards were perplexed.

“I was wondering why it did not come up,” Brown told reporters after the ruling by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro.

Brown conceded that her own attorneys had not brought up the issue. But she also said she believed it was important enough that Ungaro could have raised it while questioning attorneys during the court hearing, even if it wasn’t brought up.

Stephen Cody, who represented Brown and Diaz-Balart during the lawsuit, said afterward that the legal team challenging the amendments simply thought the stronger legal argument was based on the Legislature’s right to draw the lines — not the minority representation issue.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.