Blacks Joust for Justice in Voting Districts

Suit in Florida challenges at-large method of selecting judges as unconstitutional

BLACKS and Hispanics in Dade County, Fla., filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the method by which circuit and county court judges are elected. The plaintiffs said the at-large election of judges and their use of runoff primaries diluted the voting strength of minorities and prevented them from electing judges of their choice.

There are 102 judges in Dade County, and six are black. Four are up for re-election, and three are now targeted for opposition.

Since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 protecting the right of blacks to vote in all kinds of elections, many states adopted the at-large system where a candidate has to win votes from all over a county or city to be elected. The system has worked in Florida and other states to keep blacks out of office. So until recently, in most southern states, blacks did not hold elected posts beyond School Board.

An amendment to the Civil Rights Act in 1982, however, gave blacks the opportunity to sue to force at-large systems to change to single-member districts. The districts were then drawn to maximize the opportunity for blacks to get elected. And the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that the Voting Rights Act covered judicial elections. Lawsuits have successful changed the at-large judicial systems to district systems in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Illinois.

Single-member districts have boosted the number of elected black officials nationwide. Of the largest number of blacks elected to Congress at one time - 14 in 1992 - 12 came from newly drawn single-member congressional districts in the south. In 1992, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, and Florida elected blacks to Congress for the first time in over 90 years.

States, under court order to create districts in which blacks can get elected, have pieced together pockets of black communities scattered over large areas. This resulted, sometimes, in irregular districts like the 250-mile-long ``Z'' shaped 4th district in Louisiana where black Rep. Cleo Fields was elected to Congress in 1992. It has a 55 percent black population. A federal court ruled last week that this district be redrawn, but the state is appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court, which already had ordered the federal court review.

Last week, two prominent African American leaders in Miami called a press conference to warn white candidates about the Dade County suit. County Commissioner Arthur Teele and lawyer H.T. Smith said African American judges were being unfairly targeted because of their race.

``We cannot let a few well-financed white lawyers or their law firms or political handlers to literally buy judgeships out from under well-qualified incumbent black candidates,'' Mr. Smith said.

Three incumbent black judges in Dade County will have to fight to keep their seats in September. One of them, Circuit Court Judge Michael B. Chavies, was appointed to the bench by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1992. He receives very high professional rating (90 percent) from his colleagues and is well respected. Traditionally, lawyers here say, a judge of Mr. Chavies' caliber wouldn't be opposed. But in a county with 17 percent African Americans of voting age, where the election system is at-large and voting goes along racial lines, Chavies is vulnerable, they say.

To retain his seat he needs to raise between $150,000 and $200,000 to campaign over a county that encompasses more than 2,000 square miles and is larger than the state of Delaware.

The lawyer groups that raise money for judicial candidates often won't support more than one black candidate at a time, attorney Smith said.

Two earlier lawsuits against the system of electing judges in Florida - filed against Jacksonville and Tallahassee June 5, 1990 -

were already decided in favor of the plaintiffs. Both are on appeal. A decision may come in about three years.

White politicians who saw the new congressional districts, like the 4th in Louisiana, as racial gerrymandering diluting the voting strength of whites to benefit blacks have filed lawsuits in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas to have them scrapped. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus say the nation is seeing a repeat of the period during Reconstruction when blacks started wielding political power only to see it taken away. It took nearly a century to get it back in the South, they say. There were only 20 black representatives and two black senators - Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi - in Congress between 1869 and 1901.

Federal Judge Jacques Weiner said the 4th in Louisiana was unconstitutional because the state failed to show a compelling reason for drawing it that way.

University of Pennsylvania professor Lani Guinier argues that efforts to use single-member districts to empower blacks may be futile because even when a few blacks are elected through single-member districting onto a city council, for example, the black officials may be marginalized in the council and not have any real power. Ms. Guinier was nominated for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights by President Clinton last year, but later withdrew after a firestorm of controversy over her views.

It is time to back away from single-member districts and pursue cumulative voting methods instead, she says. In this system, if there are, say, five seats, each voter gets about five votes each and may chose to plunk all on a candidate she or he feels strongly about, or spread them out.

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