Democrats lose round in redistricting fight
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
MIAMI -- Democrats challenging Florida's Republican-friendly map of congressional districts wanted to probe the mind of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and other lawmakers who drew the map.
But they won't get the chance.
Federal judges, citing a long line of decisions, ruled Wednesday that legislators enjoy a broad shield of immunity and do not have to testify in lawsuits related to their decisions.
The ruling by U.S. District Judges Robert Hinkle and Adalberto Jordan also applies to five other legislators, including House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.
The order came near the end of five hours of largely tactical arguments in a preview to next week's trial in a lawsuit brought by Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, black and Hispanic political groups, Democratic legislators, and others.
The lawsuit accuses Feeney and Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, of violating the constitutional rights of minorities by denying them "an equal opportunity to participate" in the once-a-decade remapping of political boundaries.
Among other complaints, the suit says the Legislature held most redistricting hearings during the day and held only two of 24 forums in areas of Miami-Dade County dominated by blacks or Hispanics.
Democrats wanted to quiz the lawmakers under oath to find out why hearings were held where they were and why the districts were drawn as they were. The trial, set to open Monday in Miami, is one of several redistricting legal fights on the horizon. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenging the U.S. Justice Department's authority to give final approval to the map under the Voting Rights Act.
The three-judge panel, including U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Tjoflat, who was absent Wednesday, also must rule on whether a Broward County circuit judge can also hear a challenge to the congressional map brought by the state's three African-American members of Congress.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican and the state's top elections officer, filed a court order May 20 removing Circuit Judge Robert Andrews from the case, saying she feared being sandwiched between two conflicting court decisions.
Democrats attacked Harris, accusing her of trying to hijack the redistricting litigation for political gain.
In a third case, two Marion County lawyers and a former Ocala City Council member are suing the state, alleging that its newly drawn voting boundaries violate Florida's Constitution. The redistricting plan divides Marion County into four districts, with Ocala split three ways.
-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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