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City of Miami settles racial gerrymandering lawsuit with voting rights groups

A woman speaks into a microphone at a wooden podium.
City of Miami
via YouTube
Carolyn Donaldson, executive board member at the NAACP South Dade Branch, speaks at Miami City Hall on May 23, 2024 encouraging the commissioners to approve a settlement in the racial gerrymandering lawsuit.

The City of Miami officially has a new, ostensibly constitutional, voting map.

After a last-minute delay earlier this month that could’ve brought serious legal repercussions, the Miami City Commission approved a settlement agreement between the City of Miami and a collection of voting rights groups who sued the city for racially gerrymandering the city’s five districts in 2022.

As previously reported by WLRN, the settlement agreement includes a new map drawn by the plaintiffs and their attorneys from the ACLU of Florida and Dechert LLP. The new map redraws the five districts to align with natural boundaries like the Miami River, railroad tracks and major roadways, and reconnects existing neighborhoods into single districts.

READ MORE: City of Miami delays vote on gerrymandering settlement, could face consequences

Commissioners approved the settlement agreement in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Joe Carollo as the sole "no" vote.

Carollo called the accusation that the city racially gerrymandered its districts a "lie," despite official opinions from a federal judge and a federal magistrate contending that the city's map was, in fact, unconstitutional.

The settlement passed with little discussion aside from Carollo's comments, as the commissioners had already discussed the settlement extensively in private attorney-client sessions.

The settlement also included a $1.58 million payment to the plaintiffs for their attorneys fees and costs with no admission of guilt on the part of the city.

That’s on top of the more than $1.29 million the city spent on outside counsel with the law firm Gray Robinson throughout the legal battle over the map, which began in December of 2022. In total, once the settlement is paid out, the city will have spent close to $3 million in taxpayer funds to defend district maps that a federal judge and federal magistrate judge considered unconstitutional.

A map of City of Miami voting districts drawn by plaintiffs who won a racial gerrymandering case against the city. The new map reunites neighborhoods that were previously divided, and sets boundaries based on major roads and railways.
Plaintiffs in GRACE Inc., Et Al. vs City of Miami
A map of City of Miami voting districts drawn by plaintiffs who won a racial gerrymandering case against the city. The new map reunites neighborhoods that were previously divided, and sets boundaries based on major roads and railways.

The voting rights groups — which include the South Dade and Miami-Dade branches of the NAACP, Engage Miami and Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc. — accused Miami city commissioners of drawing voting districts predominantly on the basis of race. Their lawsuit filings quoted commissioners’ statements in public redistricting meetings where they said they wanted to maintain one Black district, one White district, and three Hispanic districts.

Last May, Magistrate Judge Lauren Fleischer Louis recommended a federal judge toss out the map created by Miami commissioners because it was likely racially gerrymandered.

“As set forth in greater detail below, the record before the Court contains substantial evidence that the Commission Districts are racial gerrymanders in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Louis wrote at that time.

Nearly a year later, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that the city’s map was in fact racially gerrymandered and ordered the city to conduct no further elections with the unconstitutional map.

“By sorting its citizens based on race, the City reduced Miamians to no more than their racial backgrounds, thereby denying them the equal protection of the laws that the Fourteenth Amendment promises,” Moore wrote in his filing.

The city is appealing Moore’s legal conclusions in a pending case with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The settlement agreement was meant to be voted on at the May 9 commission meeting, but Carollo led a charge to defer the vote by two weeks. He said he did not have enough information about the proposed map change, and did not want to vote on it without a full commission. Commissioner Damian Pardo was absent on vacation.

Pardo told WLRN at the time that he publicly supported the settlement, from the beginning, and the commission should have approved it in his absence.

Now that the settlement agreement has been approved, the city must prepare ballot language for a charter amendment that voters will decide on in November 2025. The amendment would ban commissioners from gerrymandering the city map to benefit candidates and elected officials, and would create a “Citizen’s Redistricting Committee” to make recommendations to commissioners.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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