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Sarasota Monday, May 4, 2020 4 months ago

Lawsuit challenging county's redistricting plan denied in federal court

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A lawsuit that claimed Sarasota County's new district lines were unlawful was denied in federal court.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

The new Sarasota County district lines will stand, a federal judge ruled on Monday. 

The suit was filed by several members of Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood after the County Commission voted to redraw district lines ahead of data derived from the 2020 Census. 

The lawsuit claimed that the county discriminated against black voters with the new redistricting maps. 

The maps moved Newtown and thousands of black voters from District 1 into District 2, which will not vote until 2022 because of the county’s new single member districts. Former Sarasota Mayor Fredd Atkins, a black candidate for District 1, is no longer eligible to run from that district this year.

U.S. Judge William Jung said there was no evidence that the main driver of the redistricting effort was skin color. Instead, he said that it was purely political. 

“For Plaintiffs to prevail under the controlling law, race must not only have been a motive, it must have been the predominant motive,” Jung wrote in a summary judgment. “ … race was not the predominant motive for this redistricting.”

Republican incumbent and current chair Mike Moran will seek re-election this year. Atkins, if he choses to run in 2022, would be up agains incumbent Christian Ziegler if he seeks re-election in District 2. 

Commissioners said the the decision to redraw county lines was in response to the single member districts. They stated that because of the new districts, each district had to have a balanced population. 

After hiring a consultant to draw three options for the commission, commissioners asked for public input. They ultimately asked the consultant to draw a fourth map based on a then-anonymous submission created by Bob Waechter, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota. 

The ultimately voted 3-2 to adopt the Waechter map, with Charles Hines and Christian Ziegler voting against it. 

Jung said that no matter what motivations the commission had for redistricting, commissioners ultimately had the right to do so. Previous Supreme Court rulings say that political motivations are allowed in redistricting, though doing so with racial motivation is against the law. 

“The County Commission was free to redraw lines for partisan purposes like protecting allies from opponents, so long as the redistricting did not explicitly discriminate on race, or was unexplainable on grounds other than race,” Jung writes

The lines may again be redrawn before the 2022 elections however, as Florida law requires county commissioners to revisit county districts after the results of the U.S. Census are released. 

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