Parties battle over district lines
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
MIAMI -- In a federal courtroom split into rival political camps, Republicans and Democrats today will struggle for political supremacy in Florida.
On trial is a new map of the state's 25 congressional districts that was drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature. At the end of what is expected to be a week or more of testimony and arguments, a panel of three federal judges must decide whether the map is constitutionally valid.
It is a fight heavy with racial and ethnic overtones that also has national implications because the outcome could help decide which party will control Congress for years to come.
The judges have three options. They could approve the map for the next 10 years, demand the Legislature do it over again in another special session or enlist experts and do the job themselves. That's what happened in 1992, when Democrats who were then in charge couldn't reach agreement.
Out of power, Democratic politicians and voters have attacked the new congressional map as an "extreme" case of partisan gerrymandering to maximize Republican clout at the expense of blacks and a growing number of non-Cuban Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic more often than Cuban-Americans.
"This is probably the most extreme political gerrymander that has come before the courts in a published case," said Terence Anderson, a law professor at the University of Miami who represents U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch. "On the other hand, the courts have never found an unconstitutional political gerrymander."
Deutsch, a Broward County Democrat, played a key role in the last congressional redistricting in 1992, when the two parties' roles were reversed and angry Republicans complained they were shut out of the process.
This time, Deutsch wants to call on a Rice University political scientist, John Alford, to dissect the districts. Alford raises a question: Why should 17 of 25 congressional districts be safely Republican in a state where Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans and where, as the world knows, voters were evenly split on their choice for president in 2000?
Alford wrote: "The adopted plan displays a broad willingness to abandon traditional districting principles in favor of an overall emphasis on Republican partisan advantage, as well as excessive attention in black majority districts to race, and an emphasis on creating Hispanic majority districts that are dominated by Cuban Hispanics."
Republicans are ready. They have assembled a deep and high-priced lineup of legal talent, paid for by taxpayers, to defend themselves.
They will argue that the 2002 redistricting was the most open in state history, aided by public access to computer software, and that the new districts pass the constitutional requirements of equal protection and by not diluting minority voting strength.
Republicans see Democrats desperately trying to disrupt the election by keeping the map tied up in court for as long as possible. Election supervisors have only a few weeks to print absentee ballots for shipment to overseas voters, and July 19 is the deadline for congressional candidates to qualify for the ballot.
"Delay and confusion is the order of the day for the Democrats. They would love to push this thing along right up to the filing deadline," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican and a leading architect of the map as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on congressional redistricting.
Florida is one of the last states to finish the once-a-decade job of reapportionment, and because Republicans hold a six-seat advantage in Congress, the outcome is crucial to both parties.
Republicans hold 15 of 23 seats in the state's congressional delegation. The new map is designed to put both new seats in the GOP column while endangering one Democratic incumbent.
New districts are tailored to satisfy the ambitions of House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who chaired the House panel in charge of congressional redistricting. A third new district in north-central Florida was reconfigured to boost the political aspirations of state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, at the expense of Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon, a five-term incumbent.
The Miami case -- Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and others vs. Gov. Jeb Bush and others -- also challenges the new map of legislative districts, which has already been ruled valid by the Florida Supreme Court.
The case is one of several legal hurdles the new congressional map must overcome. Two more suits are pending in federal or state courts, and the U.S. Department of Justice must approve changes in voting laws to ensure that they do not discriminate against minorities in five counties, including Hillsborough.
Both sides are aggressively jockeying for the most favorable legal position.
"Everybody's looking for a favorable forum in this case," noted U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan at a hearing last week. "There's no hiding the fact. . . . It is just transparent."
But what has Republicans most angry is happening 1,000 miles away. State Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, filed suit in federal court in Washington to block the Justice Department from approving the congressional map and asking that it be decided in open court by another three-judge panel.
Attorneys for Butterworth cite "the appearance of impropriety" in a Justice Department headed by an appointee of President Bush, Gov. Bush's brother. In court papers, Butterworth, claiming to represent the citizens of the state, objects to a decision by Bush and the Legislature to submit the map for federal approval on their own.
Only Butterworth has that authority, his lawsuit claims.
Republicans hope for good news from the Justice Department any day now. If so, law professor Anderson said, "It will mean that the trial in Miami is in reality the only game in town."
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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