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    Redistricting question left to judges

    No decision is expected before next week in a series of lawsuits involving lines for congressional and legislative districts.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 21, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- After sitting through more than eight hours of debate in a courtroom full of lawyers, three federal judges ended a long trial Thursday without hinting how they will decide lawsuits challenging new congressional and legislative districts for Florida.

    U.S. District Judges Gerald Tjoflat, Robert Hinkle and Adalberto Jordan repeatedly interrupted lawyers for both sides, questioning the impact of myriad decisions about lines drawn on maps.

    The judges are hearing a series of lawsuits brought by Democrats in Congress and others who contend lawmakers discriminated against blacks and used political gerrymandering to draw new districts.

    It is a tug of war in a state nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and could help determine control of both Congress and the Florida Legislature.

    Tjoflat appeared skeptical as he asked lawyers how Democrats could expect more in a state where Republicans have taken over the Legislature and dominate the congressional delegation, although Democrats controlled redistricting 10 years ago.

    To prove political gerrymandering, Democrats would have to show that some Floridians vote as a cohesive bloc, eliminating the chances of other voters. That could be hard to do in a state with little political cohesiveness, Tjoflat suggested. North Florida Democrats, for example, often vote for Republicans, he noted.

    Democrats accuse Republican lawmakers of packing Democrats into a few districts to guarantee continued GOP control.

    Tjoflat noted that 14 of the state's Republican members of Congress were elected in districts in which the GOP had less than 50 percent of the voter registration, while only one Republican member represents a Republican district.

    Democratic lawyers Norman C. Powell and Thomasina H. Williams argued that lawmakers failed to consider differences between "single-race black voters and black Hispanics" and others who might not support a black candidate.

    Terence J. Anderson of Miami, representing Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Broward County, complained that some neighborhoods were "scooped out of St. Petersburg and moved to Tampa" because they were Democrats in a district represented by Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Largo.

    Hinkle asked how they can determine when lawmakers go too far. "Is it like obscenity: We know it when we see it?"

    Attorneys for the Republican House, Senate and governor argued that this year's redistricting process was fair and more open than ever.

    Miguel DeGrandy, a Miami lawyer and former legislator arguing for the House, noted that the Florida Supreme Court has approved legislative maps and the U.S. Department of Justice the congressional maps.

    "Both parties are competitive," DeGrandy argued. "Partisan gerrymandering is not here."

    No decision is expected before next week. Elections officials are anxiously awaiting a ruling so they can realign voting precincts before the Sept. 10 primary.

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    From the Times state desk