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Racial gerrymandering trial begins in Miami

 Clarice Cooper (right), a Coconut Grove resident and plaintiff in the racial gerrymandering lawsuit against the City of Miami, attends a community forum at Greater St. Paul A.M.E. Church on June 5, 2023.
Joshua Ceballos
Clarice Cooper (right), a Coconut Grove resident and plaintiff in the racial gerrymandering lawsuit against the City of Miami, attends a community forum at Greater St. Paul A.M.E. Church on June 5, 2023.

The ACLU of Florida's lawsuit against the City of Miami began Monday. They accuse the city of racially gerrymandering the city district map, and claim they speak for residents throughout Miami.

A trial is underway in a federal lawsuit brought by local community groups who accuse the City of Miami of violating the U.S. Constitution by racially gerrymandering its voting map.

The first witnesses testified Monday in what is expected to be a six-day bench trial with no jury.

The local activist groups suing the city, which include Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc. (GRACE) and Engage Miami, called up a number of individual plaintiffs who are city residents and/or leaders of local community organizations.

Cross examination by the city's lawyers sought to prove that the plaintiffs do not have legal standing because they are not all residents of the city.

Rebecca Pelham, executive director for the community activism group Engage Miami, does not live in Miami. Neither does Rev. Nathaniel Robinson III, a board member of GRACE, who said that he lives in Miami Gardens.

READ MORE: City of Miami sued for 'racial gerrymandering' in redistricting map

The city's team also laid the groundwork for an argument that the plaintiffs' interest in the case is not race-based, but rather that the city commission carved up the Coconut Grove neighborhood during its 2022 redistricting cycle. The city's own lawyers mentioned how a portion of Coconut Grove — where District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo owns a home — was moved into his district, and asked if that move affected the plaintiffs' desire to contest the maps.

Plaintiffs argued from the witness stand that they represented a broad coalition of Miami residents from throughout the city's five districts, that their businesses and organizations represent Miamians and that their goal is more equitable elections for the entire city. One plaintiff, Clarice Cooper, said she has lived in Miami her entire life.

Robinson said while GRACE's initial problem with the city map centered on Coconut Grove, that changed as the redistricting fight went on.

"At this point we had conversations with our neighbors and other people throughout the city and our view had widened. We were no longer just concerned with a small group in the city of Miami, but the entire city," Robinson said from the stand.

The plaintiffs sued in December of 2022 after City Commissioners approved a new map of the five commission districts following the 2020 U.S. Census. Residents were up in arms that commissioners divided the community of Coconut Grove, which has historically been in District 2, into three districts with separate commissioners — specifically, part of the predominantly Black portion of West Coconut Grove.

"We were no longer just concerned with a small group in the city of Miami, but the entire city."
Rev. Nathaniel Robinson III, Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc.

The groups and their attorneys from the ACLU of Florida argue commissioners used race and ethnicity as the main drivers behind their mapmaking. They claim commissioners sought to draw districts based on residents' race rather than on natural boundaries.

The plaintiffs pointed to statements made on the record by city commissioners as proof that their redistricting was racially motivated.

For instance, former Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla said the following during a city meeting on redistricting: "Our goal here is to have an African-American district, for the lack of a better term, a white district, which is the coastal district, and three Hispanic districts."

Racially-dominated redistricting is considered a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Federal Judge K. Michael Moore ruled ahead of trial last May that the plaintiffs were likely to prove that the city's map was racially gerrymandered. He ordered the city to throw out its district map and draw a new one ahead of the November 2022 municipal election.

The city drew a new map in June following Moore's order, which the plaintiffs were unsatisfied with because it was largely the same as the map they considered unconstitutional.

Moore then ordered the city to adopt a map drawn by the community groups, but the city appealed his decision all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ruled in the city's favor in August, allowing them to use the contentious district map for the November election because it was too close to election day to change voting districts. He did not opine on the map's constitutionality.

A few days ahead of trial, Miami commissioners unanimously authorized the city attorney to do "everything possible" to negotiate a settlement with the plaintiffs.

“The plaintiffs have always been open to working with the City in good faith to achieve a resolution that protects the constitutional rights of all Miami residents,” said Rev. Robinson in a prepared statement.

If the plaintiffs win the case without a settlement, the judge would declare the city's district map unconstitutional and a new map would be put in place. Depending on how that new map is drawn, sitting commissioners may no longer live in the same districts. If that were to happen, special elections may have to be called because commissioners wouldn't meet the residency requirement for elected officials to live in the district they represent.

If the city wins and its map is deemed constitutional, the existing map will remain in place until the next U.S. Census in 2030.

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Joshua Ceballos