GOP defends district maps in testy hearing
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
MIAMI -- The Legislature opened an aggressive courtroom defense of its new voting districts Thursday by summoning experts to contradict Democratic complaints that the maps weaken blacks' voting power.
The fourth day of testimony before a three-judge federal panel was a tedious seminar on statistics, filled with terms such as "ecological regression." Each side uses numbers to argue whether the new districts pass or fail a basic legal test: the ability of black and Hispanic voters to elect candidates of their choice in districts designed to benefit minorities.
"This is where the real battle is. The court has to decide which expert to believe," said Terence Anderson, a University of Miami law professor who represents Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch.
The trial's focus is on Miami-Dade, Florida's largest and most diverse county, where blacks and Hispanics outnumber whites and where the cutthroat battle for partisanship pits the two groups against each other. Blacks generally vote Democratic and Hispanics generally vote Republican, and the GOP, which controls the Legislature, is determined to increase its numbers.
Attorneys for the Legislature argue that their map is legally valid and better than any Democratic version because it creates a third Hispanic-majority congressional district in Miami-Dade and Collier counties, while maintaining black-majority congressional seats in Miami-Dade, Broward and Jacksonville.
By contrast, Republican experts said, Democrats offered an alternative with two Hispanic-majority seats and a third district that favors a white Democrat, even though the growth of Hispanics in the 1990s dramatically exceeded that of blacks in South Florida.
"I'm sorry, but Hispanics deserve equal dignity with African-Americans," said House attorney Miguel De Grandy, a Cuban-American and former legislator.
Democrats argue that in the complex demographics and housing patterns of South Florida, the third Hispanic-majority district came at the expense of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a black Democrat from Broward County, whose district lost black voters in a case of "regression" that Democrats say the judges must reject.
The Legislature called two political scientists who challenged the logic and conclusions of the Democrats' top expert witness, Allan Lichtman, the history department chairman at American University.
Kevin Hill of Florida International University said Lichtman concocted an "incredibly unlikely" series of scenarios in his analysis that showed Hastings would lose to his 1992 white rival, Rep. Lois Frankel, if their race were rerun today in Hastings' new district.
Retired political scientist Gordon Henderson of Indiana said his study showed no dilution of black voting strength in three black-majority state House districts in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
Like Hill, Henderson criticized Lichtman's technique of combining sets of voting figures from different elections in the same district to draw conclusions. Henderson called that an "invitation to error."
Another Democratic argument, that the maps are extreme examples of partisan gerrymandering, appeared to lose steam Thursday.
As Democratic lawyers grilled state Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas about his desire to increase GOP seats at the expense of Democrats, one judge said that was so obvious that it didn't require taking up precious time.
"Both parties are going to maximize their representation. It's a given," interjected U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Tjoflat, a silver-haired, no-nonsense jurist who heads the panel. "Otherwise, the party chairmen would be deposed -- on either side."
In a second redistricting lawsuit brought by Democrats, Secretary of State Katherine Harris filed papers seeking to move the case from Broward to Leon County, claiming a legal privilege to try the case in Tallahassee, where her office is headquartered.
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