On September 9th, following a short hearing in Miami Federal court, Federal Judge Ursula Ungaro suppressed a challenge to a Florida constitutional amendment regulating redistricting in the state. Minority House members Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, successfully contended that Amendment 6, which forbids the state Legislature from gerrymandering, or drawing congressional boundaries that favor one party or incumbent, which violates the U.S. Constitution. The amendment also mandates compact districts which do not exclude racial and/or language minorities from the political process.
In Florida, congressional redistricting is controlled by the state legislature, which is currently held by Republicans. The legislature must pass a joint resolution during either the regular session or a thirty day special session called by the governor. After a joint plan is passed, the Supreme Court determines the plan’s validity and it becomes law. If the Court does not approve the plan, the legislature is called to a 15-day session during which they must reevaluate and fix the plan, and then send it to the Supreme Court again. In the case that no initial plan is decided upon at the legislative level, the Court doesn’t approve the revised legislative plan, or the legislature is unable to reach a new joint resolution within the fifteen day session, the Supreme Court has sixty days to create its own plan. While Governor Rick Scott (R) has no veto power over the Supreme Court’s plans, he can veto or sign the Congressional plan.
Lawyers for Brown and Diaz-Balart argued that the amendment, which was passed by 63% of Florida voters in 2010, was not approved by state legislators, and thus violated the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause. The Elections Clause states that the “times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.” Amendment 6 violates the clause, they contend, because it was not approved by state lawmakers but by voters acting independently. Attorney Stephen Cody, speaking on behalf of the representatives, argued that the people of Florida have never had the power to act on congressional redistricting, and “that power must [only] be exercised by the legislature.”
Lawyers on the other side, however, noted that in 1958, the legislature itself approved both the voter initiative and the referendum process. John Mills, former Florida House speaker, voiced his concern, stating, “The Legislature created by process by which the initiative passed, and the Legislature will have the last word.” Ungaro, siding with the Florida Secretary of State’s office, the ACLU, the NAACP, and five individual Democratic state lawmakers, defended the amendment, concluding that the Florida Constitution “authorizes the people to participate in the lawmaking process.” Ungaro’s decision effectively upholds that gerrymandering be eliminated from the ground up.
Following their defeat, Brown and Diaz-Balart expressed their intent to appeal Ungaro’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown told the Associated Press, “I am disappointed. When you are disappointed, what do you do? You go on to take the next step, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
On September 19, however, the Republican Chairman of the House redistricting panel announces that the committee will be proceeding on the assumption that Ungaro’s ruling will be upheld and has set a timetable for the redistricting process.