WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bench trial begins today in a federal lawsuit challenging Miami, Florida’s city commission districts for being unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
The case — which was filed in 2022 by Grove Rights and Community Equity, Engage Miami, three Florida branches of the NAACP and individual residents — contends that the districts for Miami’s five-member city commission were “drawn along racial lines for the predominant purpose of maintaining racially segregated districts” following the 2020 census. As the city’s governing body, the commission has the power to pass ordinances, adopt regulations and more.
According to the lawsuit, the city packed certain districts with as many Hispanic and Black residents as possible — and without a compelling state interest — in order to “diminish minority voters’ influence and power.” In particular, the plaintiffs argue that the city purposefully used racial considerations to construct a predominately white, “Anglo access district” in the 2nd District, while also “imposing a 50% Black voting-age population (BVAP) quota for” the 5th District. Meanwhile, the lawsuit asserts that the city packed Hispanic voters into the 1st, 3rd and 4th Districts.
In a May 2022 ruling, federal district Judge K. Michael Moore sided with the pro-voting plaintiffs and temporarily blocked the city’s newly drawn map after finding that it likely violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on using race as the predominant factor in the redistricting process. As Moore’s ruling highlighted, certain Miami city commissioners spoke outwardly in meetings about their intent to maintain certain racially defined districts: then-Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla (R), for instance, stated that: “[o]ur goal here is to have an African American district, for the lack of a better term, a white district, which is the coastal district, and three Hispanic districts.”
Following the ruling, the city of Miami adopted new city commission districts in June 2023, but Moore once again blocked the districts, holding that the city did “not completely correct the constitutional defects” that the court found in the city’s original map.
Concluding that “there [was] no longer enough time to order the Commissioners to draw another map,” Moore ordered Miami to adopt an alternative redistricting plan — which was drawn by the plaintiffs — for the city’s November 2023 municipal election.
However, following an appeal from the city, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals paused the adoption of the plaintiffs’ remedial map, holding that it was too close to the upcoming election to implement new districts and that doing so would cause “voter confusion.” At the time of the 11th Circuit’s August order, the election was over three months away. The U.S. Supreme Court then denied an emergency request from the plaintiffs to lift the 11th Circuit’s pause, thereby leaving the city’s likely unconstitutional map in place for the November 2023 elections.
At trial, the plaintiffs will focus on attaining fair districts for future elections. The plaintiffs argue that both original districts from 2022 — as well as the revised districts from 2023 — violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. On the other side, the city of Miami contends that “[n]either the 2022 nor the 2023 Plan were drawn to affect a racial gerrymander” and that the “City Commission is entitled to a presumption of good faith” in the context of its redistricting processes.
Ahead of the trial, the city of Miami informed the court that it amended the border between the 1st and 3rd Districts. In response, the plaintiffs told the court that “the area moved has a population of just 48 people, or 0.05% of the population of District 1 and 0.01% of the population of the City. In other words, the map is 99.99% unchanged.” The plaintiffs added that the small change does not disrupt any of their claims at trial nor should it “prevent [them] from obtaining effective relief.”
According to the plaintiffs, the ultimate goal of this week’s trial is to achieve “fair, public-minded representation” for Miami residents. As it currently stands, “Miami’s districting scheme sorts residents by race into separate districts, dividing communities along racial lines, and thus undermining the quality of representation for the people living in those communities and districts,” the plaintiffs maintain.
In addition to seeking new districts, the plaintiffs ask the court to order Miami to hold special elections for the city’s five commission districts in November 2024, or alternatively in 2025.
The trial is expected to last six days.