SARASOTA –– It may have been politics, it may have about protecting an ally, but race was not the predominant motive behind the decision by Sarasota County commissioners to redraw their district boundaries last year in advance of the 2020 census.
In a 31-page opinion issued Monday, federal District Judge William Jung found in favor of the county on the hotly charged issue, averting a trial scheduled to begin May 11.
Citing the change to single-member districts in 2018 and the explosive growth in South County over the last decade, commissioners argued that the populations in the various districts were not equal as justification for redrawing the boundaries in 2019 rather than waiting for accurate data from the census.
The map they ultimately adopted after some tweaking from their redistricting consultant was one anonymously submitted by “Adam Smith” later revealed to be Republican insider Robert Wachter.
That map moved the entire Newtown community in North Sarasota from District 1, represented by Commissioner Mike Moran, into District 2, represented by Commissioner Christian Ziegler.
Moran is up for re-election this year. Atkins had already filed the paperwork to oppose him again, just as he did in 2016 when he handily beat Moran in District 1 but lost county-wide.
Residents of Newtown were quick to cry foul, and three members of the community –– Fredd Atkins, Mary Mack, and Michael White filed suit claiming racial gerrymandering in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“There is simply no record evidence that the main driver of this was skin color, rather than simple political gerrymandering and “hardball” partisan incumbent protection,” Jung wrote, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact, nor any evidence that race was the predominant motive in commissioners’ decision, a standard established in the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case of Easley v. Cromartie.
With that established, Jung could only rule in favor of the county.
“We are very pleased with the court’s ruling today granting summary judgment for Sarasota County,” County Attorney Rick Elbrecht wrote in an email to the Sarasota News Leader. “Judge Jung’s Order confirmed that the process and procedures followed by the Board of County Commissioners in redistricting were lawful and proper from beginning to end.”
Asked for a response, Hugh Culverhouse, the lead attorney for the three plaintiffs wrote in an email, “It was a thorough opinion, while I differ on conclusion.”
Culverhouse went on to add, “An appeal is pointless as the election would occur long before a decision would be rendered.”