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Will GOP-led Legislature appeal gerrymandering case?

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Twenty-four hours after the Florida Supreme Court’s major decision calling for eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts to be redrawn, it’s unknown what the leaders of the Florida Legislature will do in response.

The court gave them 100 days to respond to its call to redraw those eight districts, which would ultimately affect the district lines of all 27 districts.

Jacksonville area Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown may pursue legal action because her uniquely drawn District 5 is one of those districts that the court says must be redrawn.

Noting her district as well as three others in South Florida were designed in reaction to the Voting Rights Act about minority voting participation, USFSP political science emeritus professor Darryl Paulson says the Legislature should appeal as well.

“The Voting Rights Act was passed to expand majority-minority districts and then to preserve and protect them,” says Paulson. “Now you have the Florida Supreme Court challenging four of the majority-minority districts that exist in the state of Florida, which to me seems a blatantly unwise policy.”

Paulson testified in 1992 before Senior U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins, the special master chosen to draw up Florida’s new congressional and legislative districts. Atkins was chosen for the task after the Democratic-controlled Legislature couldn’t agree on how to draw up the new district lines. He’s the man responsible for designing Brown’s uniquely drawn snake-shaped district, which includes parts of eight different counties and runs from Jacksonville to Orlando.

“It’s one of the few times when a federal district court judge has been accused in engaging in unconstitutional gerrymandering, but he was the special master specifically appointed for that task. That’s extraordinarily unusual,”  he says.

Paulson then declared to Florida Politics that, “Never in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court [has it] declared that political gerrymandering be ruled unconstitutional.”

That’s not exactly true, says Rick Hasen, who teaches law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and is an expert in election law. As evidence he refers to the Vieth v. Jubelirer case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004.

In an e-mail, Professor Hasen writes that the court divided 4-1-4 on partisan gerrymandering. Four justices said the courts couldn’t hear the cases; four justices said it was unconstitutional, and Justice Anthony Kennedy said partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional, “but he can’t (yet) figure out a test to separate permissible from impermissible consideration of party. And so the claims are brought but they almost always lose.”

Hasen also notes that the High Court also pointed to problems with partisan gerrymandering when they ruled last month that Arizona’s use of an independent commission to redraw congressional districts was constitutional. The UC-Irvine professor that the Supremes will will hear another case about whether one can draw somewhat unequal state legislative districts when the purpose of not making them equal is for partisan reasons.

“And the court has allowed a variety of claims raising unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” he writes.

Professor Paulson, a Republican, says he thinks the Florida Supreme Court overreached.

“This to me is just a very bad decision on the part of the court,” he contends. “I understand the rationale of people wanted them to do when they passed that constitutional amendment (the Florida Fair District amendments in 2010). But I am adamantly opposed to African-Americans and Hispanics having to face the brunt of this, and (are) likely in the greatest jeopardy of losing their seats after holding those seats for such a short amount of time.”

Paulson thinks that Brown would seem to have grounds to challenge the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling violating the Voting Rights Act. Professor Hasen says he doesn’t know what would happen, but says if Brown were to challenge the ruling, she would probably need to file a Section 2 suit in U.S. District Court initially.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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