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Blacks Joust for Justice in Voting Districts

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

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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.

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