Court orders Florida’s congressional districts redrawn [7-14-15]

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Mary Ellen Klas

Published July 12, 2015

In a precedent-setting ruling Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the state’s congressional districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature and ordered a new map with eight districts redrawn in time for the 2016 election.

In the 5-2 ruling, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting, the court provided unprecedented and specific direction to the Legislature, such as redrawing the snake-shaped district of Congressional District 5, now held by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in an east-west direction.

“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 coalition of voter groups which brought the challenge. “The Supreme Court accepted every challenge we made and ordered the legislature to do it over.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said the court affirmed “the trial court’s factual findings and ultimate determination that the redistricting process and resulting map were tainted “by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

But the court 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.”

In a victory for the coalition of voters groups who sought the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, the court concludes legislators illegally gerrymandered the congressional districts.

“Through this opinion, we have provided clear guidance as to the specific deficiencies in the districts that the Legislature must redraw—Districts 5, 13, 14, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, and all other districts affected thereby,” the court wrote, “and we have urged the Legislature in light of the trial court’s findings in this case to consider making all decisions on the redrawn map in public view.”

The ruling is likely to shake up Florida’s political landscape as incumbents face the prospect of a new set of boundary lines close to the 2016 election. In siding with a coalition of Democrat-backed voter groups, the court majority concluded that the boundaries drawn by lawmakers violated the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the state Constitution.

The decision is a victory for the plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of voter groups and the League of Women Voters, who tried and failed to get the lower court to redraw the entire map because of violations to the Fair District amendments to the state Constitution.

The amendments were approved by voters in 2010 by more than 63 percent — over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature — to prohibit lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties.

The new 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 in secrecy.

In addition to resetting the political landscape, the ruling could put incumbents at greater risk than is normal in a mid-decade election, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and an expert on redistricting, because any shift in district boundaries gives them less time to appeal to new constituents.

“In a typical redistricting cycle, the redistricting happens well over a year prior to the next congressional elections and that gives incumbents a lot of time to do things they can claim credit for,” McDonald told the Herald/Times.

“All they can do is spend campaign dollars,’’ McDonald said. “”They can’t do other things to endear themselves to constituents.”

The court upheld the year-old ruling by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who rejected the plaintiff’s call for revising the whole map even though he concluded that political operatives had worked to “hijack” the state’s redistricting process and tainted the map with “improper partisan intent.” He ordered two districts to be redrawn — District 5, a snake-shaped district that stretches from Orlando to Jacksonville and is held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and District 10, an Orlando-based district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

The Legislature held a special session in August to make the changes. Plaintiffs appealed, asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject the map and approve an alternate proposed by the plaintiffs.

The debate also brought to the surface the racial tensions that coursed for years beneath the surface in Florida’s redistricting battle.

Lawyers for the Legislature and the NAACP argued that the plaintiff’s alternative map would divide black communities and perpetuate the racially polarized voting that in the past has prohibited African Americans from electing representatives of their choice.

The coalition’s map would have dismantled Brown’s district and replaced it with two districts designed to elect two African Americans to Congress. Their proposal creates a black majority district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee across North Florida and another that shift’s Webster’s districts into a district that could favor a black Democrat.

During the precedent-setting trial, reporters and the public were removed from the courtroom and the live television stream was shut off to allow political operative Pat Bainter to testify for three hours.

GOP political consultant Frank Terraferma and other political operatives testified how proposed maps with shadowy names such as “Sputnik,” “Schmedloff” and “”Frankenstein” were created and then secretly shared during the months legislative staff were also drawing maps.

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. Phone records of a House speaker and his right hand man, sought for more than a year, were never produced. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.

The maps drawn by political consultants closely mirrored those submitted under the name of a former Florida State University student, Alex Posada, who denied being associated with the redistricting process. Plaintiffs argued that was proof that GOP consultants had orchestrated a “shadow” system to infiltrate the redistricting process.

But lawyers for the House and Senate acknowledged that while the operatives attempted to infiltrate the process, they failed.

Testimony showed that the Legislature’s professional staff drew the maps and, their lawyers argued, “were not part of the conspiracy.” They noted that plaintiffs could not point to anyone who admitted using the fraudulent map to create the final congressional plan.

The plaintiffs, however, urged the court to conclude that the process constituted an “intentional violation by the Legislature” because GOP leaders “disproportionately relied on maps secretly drawn by the same operatives to whom it provided special access, and destroyed any evidence revealing what it had done.”

David King, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, urged the court to either draw a new map or hire a special master to create one map that would enable 203,000 more minorities to be able to elect their own candidates.

Political science professors testified that it was possible to draw a redistricting map that more equally distributes voters along partisan lines and creates a map that favors half Republicans and half Democrats instead of the current configuration that favors Republicans,

The congressional maps were first challenged in 2012, the year they were adopted by the Florida Legislature.

The plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit this year, challenging the Senate maps, also drawn in 2012. Oral arguments in that case have been scheduled for September in Leon County.