TALLAHASSEE — A federal court turned aside Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown's legal fight to keep her current district intact, setting the stage for a campaign that will range from Tallahassee to Jacksonville.
A three-judge panel based in Tallahassee unanimously ruled against Brown on Monday, saying she could not prove that a new east-west configuration of her district would dilute the ability of African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice in 2016 or beyond. Brown's current district, which was found by the Florida Supreme Court to violate the state Constitution, ambles from Jacksonville in the north to Orlando in the south.
"Although the victory percentages may drop slightly from those in the north-south configuration, the evidence demonstrates that black-preferred candidates should generally continue to win east-west District 5 with about 60 percent of the vote," said the opinion, signed by judges Robin Rosenbaum, Robert Hinkle and Mark Walker. "And a win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory. Moreover, on this record, any drop in the margin of victory in District 5 reflects only that, for purposes of obtaining partisan advantage, members controlling the Legislature's redistricting process previously sought to and, for a time, succeeded in packing black voters into the north-south configuration to minimize their presence in other districts."
Brown has insisted that an African-American Democrat can't win the reconfigured seat, even though President Barack Obama carried the revamped district by more than 28 points in 2012. The new district covers more than 200 miles across the top of the state, going from Jacksonville to Gadsden County and carving up Tallahassee.
The ruling is also a blow to Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, whose Congressional District 2 will become decidedly more Republican in the wake of the changes to Brown's neighboring district.
"I'm disappointed the Second Congressional District will be transformed from a fair, moderate district into two extreme partisan districts,'' Graham said in a prepared statement Monday night. "Dividing Tallahassee hurts North Florida and our community. Now that the lengthy legal challenges to the maps have been completed, I will make a decision as to what's next as soon as possible. Though the maps may have changed, my commitment to public service has not."
Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando district emerged from a previous redistricting battle more than 20 years ago. A federal court drew districts to increase the power of African-American voters, who had previously been marginalized by the state's congressional maps.
But in 2010, voters overwhelmingly approved the "Fair Districts" amendments to the Florida Constitution in an effort to thwart partisan gerrymandering by state lawmakers. After the north-south alignment for Brown's district was left unchanged by the Legislature in 2012, voting-rights organizations contended in a lawsuit that the sprawling district was meant to keep African-American voters who favor Democrats out of GOP-friendly districts in Northeast and Central Florida.
In a landmark ruling last July, the Florida Supreme Court struck down Brown's district and seven others, saying they were drawn by the Republican-dominated Legislature in an effort to help the GOP. After a final version of the map was approved by the state court in December, Brown quickly renewed a federal lawsuit in an effort to block the new district.
Addressing another part of Brown's federal challenge, the three-judge panel also said Brown had not proven that voters left out of the seat — many of whom will now fall into a redrawn Congressional District 10 in Central Florida — would be harmed.
District 10 was previously represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster, who has already said he will run in another district. Webster's former seat is now highly favorable to Democrats.
"To the contrary, the combination of east-west District 5 and new District 10 will provide approximately 120,000 more black voters with an opportunity to be able to elect their candidate of choice than a districting plan that includes north-south District 5," the court ruled.
Brown could still appeal the decision, and Monday's ruling was issued in part to allow for that. The deadline for qualifying for congressional seats in Florida is June 24.