Corrine Brown asks for help in district challenge

Brown lawsuit aimed at blocking changes to her congressional district

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After representing northeast Florida in Congress since 1995, Corrine Brown is facing the biggest challenge of her political fight. And it's not a battle for the voters, but to convince a court to throw out the map of her congressional district from representing a swath that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando to a district that stretches from Jacksonville's urban core west past Tallahassee along the Florida-Georgia border.

"Bullies have played a dirty trick to force me out of office by re-drawing my Congressional district to cover a largely rural area of north Florida and include 22 prisons, and convicted felons can’t vote," Brown posted on her "Friends of Corrine Brown 2016" blog. "This dirty trick would prevent me from representing so many of the Florida communities I love."

In December, Brown filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to void Florida's latest congressional redistricting plan that was drawn by a Florida circuit judge and approved by a the state's supreme court.

The new map for the state's 27 congressional districts radically changes Brown’s 5th Congressional District.

A hearing on Brown's lawsuit is set for March 25 in federal court in Tallahassee, and in her blog post, she asked for prayers and money to fund her legal challenge.

"This court battle will cost more than $100,000 and my funds very are limited," Brown wrote. "I’m grateful if you can contribute from $25 up to the legal limit of $2,600, to the Friends of Corrine Brown."

Her complaint marked the next phase of a legal battle over the state's political boundaries that has raged for nearly four years. The first two drafts of a congressional plan -- approved by the Legislature in 2012 and tweaked in 2014 -- were thrown out by state courts for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

But the reorientation of Brown's congressional district prompted the Democratic congresswoman to file suit.

Brown's challenge goes to great lengths to portray the areas encompassed by the Jacksonville-to-Orlando version of the district as a distinct region that includes African-American voters with similar interests and problems. It traces a history that includes the Ku Klux Klan, baseball player Jackie Robinson's spring training and the book "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

“In 1992, the federal judges drew the district and it was affirmed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Brown. “So we’re back at square one.”

Brown contends her new district violates federal voting laws and diminishes the voting clout of minorities.

Dozens of voters from the area joined Brown's lawsuit.

"Black voters have reaped substantial benefits by being in a district in which they can elect a candidate of their choice, including having a representative who understands the needs of the community she represents, brings infrastructure money to the district, helps black residents obtain government contracts, brings job fairs to the district, and is very accessible to her constituents," the complaint says.

Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando seat has long been at the center of conflicts in Florida over gerrymandered districts. Critics see it as an attempt to aid Republican campaigns, especially those in Central Florida, by concentrating African-American Democratic voters in a single district. But supporters say it ensures those voters the chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

The congresswoman has repeatedly argued that the east-west configuration of the district would not elect an African-American Democrat, despite the fact that President Barack Obama carried the revamped district by more than 28 points in 2012.

The complaint says the new district violates the federal Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution and the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" amendments to the Florida Constitution -- though federal courts are traditionally wary of interpreting state law.

It says the black voting-age population of the district would drop by about 5 percentage points under the new plan and that a disproportionate number of African-American felons -- particularly those living in prisons in the area -- skews those statistics.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the district would allow African-American voters to dominate the Democratic primary and that the district's Democratic tilt means that candidates favored by African-Americans should be able to be re-elected.

The court's two black members also sharply rebuked Brown, though not by name, in the opinion early this month. Brown had compared the changes in her district to slavery during an earlier press conference.

"The efforts to paint this process as partisan or invoke the antebellum period are an unjustified attack on the integrity of our judicial system," wrote Justice James E.C. Perry, in an opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince. " ... Originally, the right to vote was limited to white male landowners. Others had to fight and die for the privilege to be extended to them. It is an insult to their struggle for politicians to now use that sacrifice for personal benefit."


About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.