A victory to preserve voters' will

Editorial | Tampa Bay Times | 03/09/2012

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday followed the will of the voters who demanded more reasonably drawn legislative districts. The court's landmark redistricting opinion thoughtfully defined the constitutional amendment approved in 2010 and invalidated new state Senate districts for clearly failing to meet those requirements. This is a victory for Floridians who want fair elections and a sound defeat for drawing maps that rig the outcomes and protect incumbents.

The majority opinion confirms the significance of Amendment 5 (and an identical Amendment 6 for congressional redistricting, which was not considered Friday) in reshaping the state's political landscape. More than 60 percent of the voters approved those amendments, which set smart new rules to stop decades of abuses by legislators protecting their self-interests. Amendment 5 requires that legislative districts not be drawn to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. They should be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries where possible, and they cannot reduce the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice.

The court ruled that the new House districts meet those requirements and generally praised the House's approach. That is a particular credit to Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican who oversaw redistricting and is incoming House speaker.

But the court was critical of the Senate's approach, which did not consider political or election performance statistics in drawing new districts. Eight of 40 Senate districts were ruled invalid for protecting incumbents, lack of compactness and other issues. The court also faulted the renumbering of the districts to favor incumbents.

The opinion is a comeuppance for Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is the incoming Senate president. Gaetz oversaw the drawing of the Senate map, and his sprawling Panhandle district was one of those invalidated by the court. Correcting the map's deficiencies will require Gov. Rick Scott to call the Legislature into special session to draw a new Senate map.

The court's 191-page majority opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente thoughtfully described the new era for redistricting that voters created by approving the constitutional amendments. It rejected the Legislature's contention that the court should continue only limited reviews of new legislative maps. The court concluded the amendment requires a more thorough examination, and it defined concepts in the amendment with pragmatism and common sense.

For example, the court rejected the notion by prominent Republican legislators that the minority population in minority districts must remain as high as it was in 2002 to continue to ensure that minorities have the ability to elect candidates of their choice. Whether a district is compact will be determined by simple geography, not an expansive definition that would allow more sprawling districts. And reasonable geographic boundaries for districts will include city and county boundaries, rivers, railroads, interstates and state roads — not dirt roads, creeks or other obscure lines that lawmakers have resorted to for political reasons.

With the benefit of the court's clear definitions, it's now up to the Legislature to redraw a Senate map that better meets the new constitutional requirements and the intent of the voters.

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