City of Miami Racially Gerrymandered Voting Districts, Judge Finds

The City of Miami unconstitutionally gerrymandered voting districts by race and ethnicity, a federal judge found on Wednesday, throwing out the city’s voting map and rejecting the way city commissioners have tried to hold on to power for more than two decades.

Judge K. Michael Moore of the Federal District Court in Miami wrote that commissioners had used redistricting rationale since 1997 to draw five districts with the explicit intent of having voters elect three Hispanic commissioners, one Black commissioner and one non-Hispanic white commissioner.

“Sorting voters on the basis of race, as the city did here, deprives Miamians of the constitutional promise that they receive equal protection under the law,” Judge Moore wrote. “These are the serious harms that the city perpetuated, and Miamians suffered. Today, the court permanently prevents the city from racial gerrymandering any longer.”

The ruling comes as scandal has roiled City Hall.

Mayor Francis X. Suarez, who briefly sought the Republican presidential nomination, has been dogged by controversies over undisclosed work for clients outside City Hall. Last year, a jury held Commissioner Joe Carollo liable for more than $63 million in damages for siccing inspectors on two businessmen as political retribution.

A former commissioner, Alex Díaz de la Portilla, faces bribery and money laundering charges in a case involving a city land deal. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Another former commissioner, Sabina Covo, has been under investigation for bribery. (She has denied wrongdoing.) The city attorney, Victoria Méndez, has been accused in a lawsuit of being involved in a house-flipping scheme with her husband. (She has denied involvement or wrongdoing.)

As a result of Judge Moore’s ruling, the city could be forced to hold a special election or to draw a new voting map. The next municipal elections are supposed to take place in November 2025. Commissioners, who are nonpartisan, serve staggered four-year terms.

The judge said that he would set a court date to discuss potential remedies between the city and the plaintiffs. They comprise a coalition of residents and community groups, including two branches of the N.A.A.C.P., and are represented in part by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Democracy depends on the judicial system keeping lawmakers in check,” Daniella Pierre, president of the N.A.A.C.P. Miami-Dade Branch, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Today is a lesson to everyone in power: Efforts to diminish Black and Latino voices will not go unchallenged.”

A Miami spokeswoman said that the city’s legal department had received the order and was reviewing it.

The plaintiffs first sued in 2022, and Judge Moore ruled against the city’s proposed map back then. The city made some changes, but they were not enough for the court. On Wednesday, the judge ruled that commissioners had prioritized race and ethnicity over other requirements of drawing new districts, including that they be compact and respect man-made and natural boundaries.

Miami’s population of 450,000 people is nearly three-quarters Hispanic, 14 percent Black and about 12 percent non-Hispanic white.

Commissioners acted “not necessarily out of malice, but as a means to provide multiracial representation for the city of Miami,” Judge Moore wrote. However, their intention was immaterial to the fact that their rationale caused residents “harm,” he added.

The judge’s order followed a two-day bench trial, held in January, in which some of the most crucial evidence came from statements that city commissioners made during public redistricting hearings in 2022. At the time, residents vehemently opposed splitting the city’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, which has historical Bahamian roots, arguing that doing so would dilute Black voters’ power.

In a meeting in February 2022, Mr. Carollo said that his goals were “that we could have African American representation” and “guaranteed Anglo representation, and to have three districts that were Hispanic,” Judge Moore noted in his ruling.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes added: “Yes, we are gerrymandering to preserve those seats.”

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