TALLAHASSEE -- A federal judge has struck down county commission districts in a rural North Florida county -- a potentially precedent-setting decision that could play into a challenge of the state's congressional lines.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the five districts in Jefferson County violated the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote" because one of the districts' population included a state prison.
Counting inmates who can't vote in that district's population meant there were fewer voters in the district than in other county commission seats, watering down the influence of citizens elsewhere. Districts at most levels of state government are changed every 10 years to account for population shifts found by the U.S. Census. Many governments count prisoners toward districts' population numbers.
"To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense under any theory of one person, one vote, and indeed under any theory of representative democracy," Walker wrote in the decision, dated Saturday. "Furthermore, such treatment greatly dilutes the voting and representational strength of denizens in other districts."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, one of two groups that filed a lawsuit challenging the districts on behalf of four Jefferson County residents, said Walker's decision was the first time a federal court has struck down districts for "prison gerrymandering."
"Judge Walker's ruling holds that political maps can't be drawn in a way that exploits the exploding populations of our prisons by using inmates who have no political influence over local politics to dilute the voting strength of local residents," said Nancy Abudu, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. "Those who engage in prison gerrymandering should be on notice that this unconstitutional practice is subject to challenge."
The Florida Justice Institute worked on the lawsuit with the ACLU. The immediate effect of the ruling is to force Jefferson County to redraw its five commission districts while excluding the inmates of Jefferson Correctional Institution. But it could have far-reaching implications if Walker's decision stands up to any appeal and if similar reasoning is used in a lawsuit by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown dealing with the boundaries of Florida's 27 U.S. House districts.
Walker sits on the three-judge panel set to hear Brown's lawsuit. Walker's ruling in the Jefferson County suit focuses heavily on the "representational nexus" between the prison inmates and members of the Jefferson County Commission and the county's school board, which uses the same lines.
Walker ruled that the inmates' lives aren't affected by the actions of county government because the prisoners are largely controlled by state laws and policies issued by the Department of Corrections.
"It is the interplay of the limited powers of the county government, the fact that the prisoners are under state control, and the fact that the prisoners are confined that deprives the prisoners of a meaningful representational nexus with the county government," Walker wrote.
Walker also emphasized the isolation that prisoners face and the size of Jefferson County --- which had a population of 14,761, including the 1,157 inmates --- as other factors in his decision.
"If any of these features were not present, this would be a different case," Walker said, specifically citing state legislative districts as an example.
In addition to the differences in the level of government, Brown's case doesn't deal directly with "one person, one vote." Instead, it challenges the state's new congressional plan on the grounds that orienting her district from east to west, instead of its current north-south configuration, undermines the ability of African Americans to elect a candidate of their choice.
As part of that argument, Brown has underscored that 17,140 prison inmates in the area make the district look more likely to elect an African American in theory than it is likely to do so in practice, because the prison population "is disproportionately black," according to one of Brown's filings.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.