Florida Gets 100 Days to Redraw Congressional Maps

by | July 10, 2015

By Mary Ellen Klas

The Florida Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to Florida's political landscape Thursday, throwing out the state's carefully-crafted congressional districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature and ordered a new map within 100 days.

In the historic 5-2 ruling, with conservative Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting, the court not only ruled the maps were the product of unconstitutional political gerrymandering and ordered eight districts redrawn, it signaled its deep distrust of lawmakers by providing instructions on how to repair the map in time for the 2016 election.

"This is a complete victory for the people of Florida who passed the Fair District amendment and sought fair representation where the Legislature didn't pick their voters,'' said David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and the coalition of voter groups which brought the challenge. "The Supreme Court accepted every challenge we made and ordered the Legislature to do it over.''

The new maps are likely to reconfigure parts of nearly all of the state's 27 congressional districts, open the door to new candidates, and threaten incumbents, who will now face a new set of boundary lines and constituents close to the 2016 election.

The court ordered the most revisions in South Florida, including Districts 25, 26 and 27, currently held by Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, saying the Legislature "needlessly" divided minority communities to benefit Republicans.

Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente affirmed the trial court's findings that the congressional map was "'taint[ed]' by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents."

But the justices reversed the trial court's order approving the Legislature's revised redistricting plan "because we conclude that, as a result of legal errors, the trial court failed to give the proper effect to its finding of unconstitutional intent, which mandated a more meaningful remedy commensurate with the constitutional violations it found.''

Last summer, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis concluded that political operatives had worked to "hijack" the state's redistricting process and tainted the map with "improper partisan intent." But rather than reject the entire map, Lewis ordered two districts to be redrawn -- District 5, held by Brown, and District 10, an Orlando-based district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

The court's order will have the most significant effect on the North Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. District 5 is a snaked-shaped district that winds from Jacksonville to Orlando and which was originally drawn by a federal court in 1992. The Supreme Court ordered it to be redrawn in an east-west direction, potentially making room for a minority-access district in the Orlando area.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who led the Senate's redistricting effort and was Senate president when the maps were approved, said he expected the ruling.

"Most observers would have been very surprised if the Supreme Court had not sided with the Democratic Party and Democratic activists on this issue,'' he said. "I believe that the maps...as drawn were compliant with the Constitution."

In his dissent, to which Polston concurred, Canady accused the majority of misreading the trial court's ruling and used "fragments from the final judgment taken out of context." He said the court "reweighs the evidence" and becomes a trier of fact.

"The upshot is a virtually revolutionary deformation of the appellate process,'' Canady said.

In siding with a coalition of Democrat-backed voter groups, the court majority validated the efforts of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, who sought the Fair District amendments to the state constitution to prohibit lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties. The amendments were approved by voters in 2010 by more than 63 percent, over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Legislature now must convene a special session to complete a new map and the trial court must review the final product. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, have not responded to the ruling.

King said that if the Legislature refuses to act, "this thing will spring back to the Supreme Court in 100 days...and they will make something happen."

The court also ordered the Legislature to turn over all documents related to the redrawn maps, including emails, to the plaintiffs to avoid protracted litigation. It urged lawmakers to adopt a redrawn map that is "devoid of partisan intent," "consider making all decisions on the redrawn map in public view" and publicly justify every new configuration.

"This has been a long, hard battle against what has been unbelievable devious political scheming and egregious behavior of our politicians,'' said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The Fair District rules not only created new standards but forced a trial that revealed that the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries that had been touted by legislators as "historic" and "transparent" was clouded with secrecy.

The Supreme Court recounted in detail the trial court evidence that revealed the depth of the relationships between the partisan political operatives and the legislative leaders. The court commended Lewis' finding that the maps were "tainted by unconstitutional intent" to benefit Republicans and incumbents but concluded that his legal reasoning was flawed.

The ruling also renewed the racial tensions that have coursed through the Florida's redistricting battle for decades.

Brown, whose district will be dismantled because of the ruling, blasted the decision as a "seriously flawed" and a potential violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. She repeated the claims of lawyers for the Legislature and the NAACP who said that dissolving her district would divide black communities and perpetuate the racially-polarized voting that in the past has prohibited African Americans from electing representatives of their choice.

"As a people, African Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly not taking any steps backwards,'' she said in a statement.

King said that Brown has a right to challenge the ruling in federal court but hoped she wouldn't.

"The court makes it abundantly clear the new configuration will be an ability for the district to election a minority candidate,'' he said.

The ruling establishes a new legal standard for what has already a history-making process.

For the first time in state history, sitting legislators were called to testify and they admitted to routinely deleting redistricting records. A legislative staffer admitted to giving a flash drive of maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they became public. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.

The Supreme Court agreed with Lewis that this and other evidence was proof that GOP consultants had orchestrated a "shadow" system to infiltrate the redistricting process.

Tampa Bay staff writers Michael Auslen and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.

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