Justice blesses proposed districts
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
MIAMI -- Florida's new congressional district map, a target of two Democratic lawsuits, passed an important legal test Friday when the U.S. Justice Department ruled the map does not reduce minority voting strength and can be used in the fall elections.
The decision bore the approval of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and came with surprising speed in a two-paragraph letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay.
It applies only to congressional districts. Boundaries for the House and Senate seats still require federal approval.
The news came at mid morning on the fifth day of a grueling and slow-moving federal trial of a lawsuit brought by Democratic members of Congress who contend minority voting strength has been diluted.
The decision was greeted with joy by lawyers for the Legislature. Senate attorney Jim Scott broke the news to a panel of three federal judges hearing a lawsuit brought by Democratic members of Congress who say the plan dilutes black voting strength.
"We have an official congressional plan, absent some court decision to the contrary," Scott said.
Legislative leaders hailed the decision as an affirmation that their map is valid and does not weaken black voting power, as Democrats have charged in lawsuits in both the federal and state courts.
"It's another great victory for the Florida House," said Feeney, who is campaigning for one of the new seats in the Orlando suburbs.
Gov. Jeb Bush called it "good news."
"But it's still in court, so we have to wait and see what happens," Bush said.
Senate President John McKay said the decision "proves that we were fair and equitable in drawing Florida's congressional districts."
The letter, signed by Ralph Boyd Jr., head of the Civil Rights Division, said, "The Attorney General does not interpose any objection to the specified change."
Boyd added the government can reconsider if new information becomes available.
In a sharp break with tradition, Bush, Feeney and McKay filed the congressional and legislative maps on their own, claiming that state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, was stonewalling the review process to disrupt the elections.
Butterworth is pressing ahead with a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., in which he wants a three-judge federal panel to conduct its own review of the new districts. Attorneys for Butterworth have cited the appearance of a conflict because Ashcroft is an appointee of a president who is the brother of Florida's governor.
Republicans repeatedly have accused Butterworth of putting partisanship above his legal responsibility as the state's chief legal officer. Butterworth said the Legislature didn't provide him with all the material he needed.
Butterworth also did not oppose the plan itself and said it complied with the Voting Rights Act. But the decision should be made in a public courtroom, he said.
"Minority voters in Florida are not going to accept this decision as having been based on anything other than politics," said Deputy Attorney General Paul Hancock.
The new map adds two new congressional seats for a total of 25, 17 of which favor the Republicans. The map carved out new districts for Feeney and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and a third district has been reconfigured to boost the political hopes of state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, in a race against Rep. Karen Thurman, a five-term Democrat from Dunnellon.
Republicans currently hold 15 of 23 seats in the state's congressional delegation, and Florida is one of the last states to complete the once-a-decade redistricting.
The Justice Department must approve any changes in state voting districts to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act in five counties with a past record of racial discrimination: Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry, Collier and Monroe.
Scott sent reams of material to Justice Department lawyers in recent days in response to questions about the racial makeup of a number of districts, including the newly designed District 23 held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar.
"We now have an enforceable, valid plan," said House attorney Miguel De Grandy. He added that the approval was especially helpful to the Legislature in the federal case because Hastings' new district includes Hendry, one of the five affected counties.
Democrats challenging the congressional map in court called the decision a blatant act of partisanship, and yet another case of President George W. Bush's administration helping his brother Jeb, who signed the congressional plan into law.
-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
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