Federal judge rules Jefferson County’s district map unconstitutional

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Absent the filing of an appeal, it’s back to the drawing board for the Jefferson County Commission andScreen Shot 2016-03-22 at 1.48.36 PM School Board, in terms of the two’s shared district map, which a group of local residents challenged early last year. In a stunning 86-page decision issued on Saturday, March 19, Federal Judge Mark E. Walker ruled that the counting of prison inmates in the drawing of Jefferson County’s district map was unconstitutional, upholding the plaintiffs’ argument that the current map dilutes their voting power. In the long-awaited ruling, Walker enjoined the Jefferson County Commission and School Board from Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 1.48.24 PMusing the current district map, and gave each until Monday, April 4, to submit a new map “that complies with this Order and with all applicable federal and state laws, to the extent those state laws are compatible with federal laws.” Failing that, the court will draw the map, the order states. Stated Judge Walker in part in the remedy section of his lengthy ruling, “When a federal court declares an existing apportionment scheme unconstitutional, it is…appropriate, whenever practicable, to afford a reasonable opportunity for the legislature to meet constitutional requirements by adopting a substitute measure rather than for the federal court to devise and order into effect its own plan…Despite the fact that this is an election year, I’m confident that the boards can quickly devise a plan that does not impermissibly dilute the voting and representational strength of the denizens of Jefferson County…Whatever they choose to do, the boards must act relatively quickly. If they do not respond, or the imminence of the election makes it impractical for them to do so, it will become the unwelcome obligation of this court to devise an interim districting plan.” Walker introduced his ruling with an imagined fictional Florida county that he named Marshall, the circumstances of which closely paralleled Jefferson County’s, complete with a prison in District 3. The judge then quickly came to his point. “Does Marshall County’s districting scheme comport with the ‘one person, one vote’ principle’ articulated by the Supreme Court?” Walker posed the question. “The short answer is ‘no,’” he continued. “The scheme obviously weighs the votes of District 3 voters more heavily than those of voters in other districts. Less obviously, but just as importantly, the scheme gives the non-incarcerated population of District 3 (whether they vote or not) an increased ability to access and influence their representatives and increased opportunities to reap the benefits of that influence. ‘One person, one vote’ is a theory of representative democracy that is subject to multiple reasonable interpretations, but Marshall County’s scheme doesn’t pass muster under any of them. “The real county at issue in this case, Jefferson County, differs from Marshall County only in degree. Its districting scheme is perhaps ‘less unconstitutional’ than Marshall County’s, but it still violates the Equal Protection Clause.” Walker dismissed the longstanding opinion of Florida’s Attorney General to Gulf County in 2001 that prison inmates should be included in the districting count. And he also dismissed the so-called “safe harbor” rule, which he called “the peskiest of the pin bones keeping us from the meat of this case”, adding that both sides had devoted tremendous energy to discussing the issue, particularly the defendants. The safe harbor rule, in the judge’s words, provides “that state and local districting schemes with total deviations of less than 10% are presumptively constitutional and represent the result of an ‘honest and good faith effort to construct districts . . . as nearly of equal population as is practicable.’” The judge then proceeded to offer, via a lengthy analysis, “two good reasons why the safe harbor rule is of little use in this case.” Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI), which jointly filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Kate Calvin, John Nelson, Charles Parrish, Lonnie Griffin and CUP in 2015, applauded the decision — calling it the first-ever federal court opinion on the issue in the country. “We are thrilled to have won this decision on behalf of the people of Jefferson County, and to have struck a blow against one of the collateral effects of mass incarceration,” Nancy Abudu, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a prepared statement. “Judge Walker’s ruling holds that political maps can’t be drawn in a way that exploits the exploding populations of our prisons by using inmates who have no political influence over local politics to dilute the voting strength of local residents. Those who engage in prison gerrymandering should be on notice that this unconstitutional practice is subject to challenge.” FJI Director Randall Berg echoed the sentiment. “This ruling is a major win for the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’” Berg said. “Judge Walker’s ruling is a resounding affirmation of the 14th Amendment rights of the people in Jefferson County, whose representation was being diluted by this system. With roughly 100,000 people incarcerated in Florida state prisons alone, the process of prison gerrymandering must come to an end.” Calvin, a former resident of District 2 who no longer lives in Jefferson County, is quoted praising the court’s decision in the ACLU’s press release. “I’m very glad that the current redistricting map will be tossed out,” Calvin said.  “This has always been about what is fair and the court’s decision sets the stage for Jefferson County to finally have fair voter districts.” Parrish, a long-time civil rights activist who also was involved in the 1980s federal suit that resulted in the creation of single districts here, likewise applauded the court’s decision. “Jefferson County has a long history of discriminatory voting practices and the struck-down 2013 plan is just another example of that,” Parrish is quoted saying in the ACLU release. “Watering down people’s right to vote is wrong, and I am very happy that new maps that treat all of us equally will now be drawn.” The defendants and their representatives, for their part, were still processing the court decision on Monday and trying to decide what to do next. Attorney Jerry Curington, who represents the School Board, was in the middle of reading and absorbing the judge’s order when contacted on Monday afternoon. Curington declined to comment, other than to express disappointment with the ruling. As to what might happen next and whether an appeal was appropriate, he said he would contact the School Board chair later in the day to determine what the board might want to do. Elections Supervisor Marty Bishop, who also was named in the lawsuit along with the commission and school board, was likewise unprepared to comment on Monday. Bishop said he had heard rumors about the decision but hadn’t yet seen the order. As to the likelihood of the two boards coming up with a new map by the April 4 deadline, Bishop could only offer a reminder of the length of time it had taken for the two boards to agree on the current map and the acrimony and dissension that had surrounded the issue. As to what a redrawn map might mean for his office, Bishop had more questions than answers. He wondered what would happen to those individuals who had already pre-qualified for certain district offices in the coming election if the lines were changed? What, moreover, would it do to the election timelines? And would the changes affect those already serving who had gained their offices under the current map in 2014? It was going to create a mess; that was for sure, Bishop offered in so many words. The 11-page lawsuit that the ACLU and FJI filed in March 2015 argued that Jefferson County’s 2013 map violated s their plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment right to equal representation under the “one person, one vote” principle of the Equal Protection Clause and called the map “a form of prison-based gerrymandering”. Prison gerrymandering, according to the ACLU, occurs when state and local governments include prisoners as residents in their redistricting plans for purposes of drawing their election lines in such a way that t reduces the voting strength of actual residents in the area.  “Defendants’ decision to include the inmate population of Jefferson County Correctional Institution (JCI) unlawfully inflates the political strength of actual residents in the district that has the prison (District 3) and dilutes the voting strength of those living in all the other districts in the county (Districts 1, 2, 4 and 5),” the suit stated. The county and school district plans, the suit further argued, treated the 1,157 inmates at JCI as if they were District 3 residents, when the overwhelming majority retained their pre-incarceration residencies “for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.” For a complete read of the judge’s order, visit http://aclufl.org/resources/calvin-et-al-v-jefferson-county-order-on-motions-for-summary-judgment/