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    3 in Congress ask that court draw districts

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 25, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's three black members of the U.S. House of Representatives sued the state Thursday to get a South Florida court to draw the lines for new congressional districts.

    The lawsuit is the first in a redistricting process that appears increasingly likely to be decided by state and federal courts.

    Legislators called the lawsuit a "publicity stunt" even as they prepared for a serious legal battle.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney has hired former federal Judge Joseph Hatchett to join a legal team that already included former state Rep. Miguel deGrandy of Miami and lawyer George Meros of Tallahassee.

    "He's a great legal scholar and a very prestigious lawyer," Feeney said of Hatchett, who was part of a federal panel that drew the lines for Florida's congressional districts 10 years ago. Hatchett, a Clearwater native, was the first black appointed to the Florida Supreme Court and later served on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. He is now in private practice in Tallahassee.

    Feeney said he is certain any redistricting plan the Legislature approves will be challenged in state and federal courts. "Some will say we paid too much attention to minorities, and others will say we don't pay enough attention." U.S. Reps. Carrie Meek of Miami, Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, all Democrats, were joined in the lawsuit by Sallie Stephens, a resident of Miramar. They could not reached for comment.

    The suit was filed in Broward Circuit Court in Fort Lauderdale. Feeney said he believes the group was "venue shopping," or trying to get the lawsuit before a judge sympathetic to Democrats. Broward is a Democratic stronghold.

    The suit names Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the state as defendants but does not include the Legislature, the arm of state government that is required to draw new districts.

    The lawsuit claims that the current districts are malapportioned and asks the court to take over the creation of new districts.

    Every legislative and congressional district in Florida needs to be realigned in keeping with a constitutional requirement to redraw the lines every 10 years after the U.S. Census determines the optimum population of each district.

    The suit is "way premature," Feeney added.

    The suit was filed by lawyers Colleen Katheryn O'Oughlin and Ephraim R. Hess of Fort Lauderdale and J. Gerald Hebert, a lawyer from Alexandria, Va., who was involved in redistricting lawsuits filed against the state 10 years ago.

    Senate Majority Leader Jim King said the Democrats in Congress are following in the footsteps of Republicans who filed suit on the opening day of the Legislature 10 years ago when they were a minority. The GOP now controls both the House and Senate.

    "It was not unanticipated," King said. "It just sets the stage."

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk