SARASOTA — Attorneys representing Sarasota County on Tuesday responded to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Middle Court in Tampa challenging the county commission’s redistricting decision last year as being racially motivated.
In a general answer and a more specific motion for summary judgement, attorneys with the GrayRobinson law firm, hired by commissioners to represent the county, appear to be chipping away at the allegations raised in the complaint filed by three Newtown residents.
Mary Mack, Fredd Atkins, and Michael White, all residents of Newtown, claimed commissioners violated the equal protection clause to the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enacted to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by changing the boundaries of the commission districts in advance of the 2020 Census, which is just now getting underway.
One of those changes moved the entire African-American community of Newtown, from District 1 to District 2, giving District 1 a distinctly Republican advantage, where Commissioner Mike Moran, the Republican incumbent, is seeking re-election.
The motion for summary judgement takes dead aim at the voting rights allegation, which could be an underpinning to the plaintiff’s entire case.
Citing two U.S. Supreme Court cases in particular, county attorneys argue that the plaintiffs have failed to meet the legal standards established in these decisions to sustain an allegation of voting rights violations.
They point out that based on the 2010 Census, Sarasota County’s African-American population only amounts to 4.2 percent of the county’s entire voting age population.
“It is mathematically impossible for a population of that size to constitute a majority in one of five districts,” Andy Bardos, one of the GrayRobinson attorneys, wrote in the motion.
“Thus, even if the county’s entire African-American population could be drawn into one district, African-Americans would still constitute a mere one-fifth of that district’s voting-age population. That percentage is not close to the numerical threshold that Plaintiffs must satisfy,” Bardos argued.
He then points to a case arising out of Baldwin County, Alabama, where the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a minority population of 9.13 percent of the county’s voting-age population was too small to sustain a voting rights claim.
As to the allegation that the county commission violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by racially gerrymandering the entire Newtown community into a new commission district, the county attorneys responded only with an answer denying the plaintiff’s claims, raising no other defenses.
In considering a motion for summary judgement, the legal standard that judge applies is twofold. There first must be no genuine issue as to any material fact, and second, the moving party is entitled to judgement as a matter of law.
However, in their complaint, plaintiff’s attorney Hugh Culverhouse Jr. pointed to testimony during the public hearing from R.N. Collins, an expert in GIS mapping and statistic, who claimed that the data used by the county’s consultant in determining the county population had vastly underestimated both the African-American and Hispanic populations in the county.
Commissioners never asked for that data.
U.S. District Judge William Jung earlier this month tossed out an earlier motion filed by the county attorneys seeking a dismissal of the case.
Jung, however, did dismiss an allegation that commissioners had violated the Florida Constitution with their vote, and also dismissed three individual commissioners as defendants since they were acting in their official capacity.
Dismissed as parties were Commissioners Nancy Detert, Mike Moran, and Alan Maio who all cast the deciding votes to redistrict this year instead of waiting until after the 2020 Census.
The case is set for a trial on April 27 in Tampa.