Florida Republicans defend congressional map in court

Tarini Parti | Politico | 05/28/2014

Some of the nation’s most competitive House races in 2014 are in Florida, but it’s possible the district lines under which candidates for the state’s 27 seats are running could be scrapped in a courtroom before voters even begin to cast their ballots.

The League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and other Democratic-aligned groups are challenging the state’s Republican-drawn congressional map in court, alleging that the GOP violated Florida’s Fair Districts amendment — passed by voters in 2010 — that calls for the redistricting process to be done without taking into account partisan makeup or incumbent advantage.

The case is in the midst of a 12-day trial that could have major implications for future elections — perhaps even the 2014 midterms, depending on how quickly the court moves. The plaintiffs are arguing that the state cannot have another election based on the current map, which they allege violates the law.

“There’s a chance that it could affect 2014, and there’s a very good chance it could affect 2016,” said Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who also worked as the Democratic National Committee’s National Voter Protection counsel in 2008.

“So far the judge has seemed to take these claims seriously,” Levitt added. “What happens with future redistricting battles depends on how closely the courts police the law.”

Of the state’s 27 congressional districts, Republicans currently enjoy a 17-10 advantage. But if the court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor and the districts are redrawn, Democrats will be poised to pick up three or four seats, making the delegation more reflective of the state’s overall political inclination.

“I call this case ‘The Big Show,’” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason and redistricting consultant who has worked in several states. “Because of all the redistricting cases — in Virginia, North Carolina, Texas — this one has the most potential to change the partisan balance in the House of Representatives.”

“It would upset a lot of people’s career plans,” McDonald said. “But we don’t know exactly who would be on the chopping block.”

Top state legislators and Republican consultants have been called to testify in the case, as Democrats have tried to show that political consultants were actively involved in helping the legislators draw the maps to give their party an advantage. Some of the beneficiaries of redistricting mentioned in the trial have been Republican Reps. Daniel Webster and David Jolly. (Jolly, who won a special election earlier this year in the Gulf Coast-based 13th District, wasn’t a candidate in 2012 when the maps were first used.)

Democrats hoping for a stinging rebuke of the GOP-drawn map scored a big win Tuesday: The state Supreme Court ruled that documents believed to be the “smoking gun” in the case will be made public.

More than 500 pages of maps and emails belonging to Republican operative Pat Bainter — who Democrats believe essentially drew the maps for the redistricting process — were sealed after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled them to be “trade secrets.” The state Supreme Court moved quickly, ruling 5-2 on Tuesday to overturn that decision after the plaintiffs filed an emergency petition Friday asking for the documents to be used as evidence in the trial.

“Clearly, common sense dictates that Republicans violated the law,” said Brian Smoot of the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which is largely funding the legal battle and is run by for former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffers. “Our case is really about the legality.”

Smoot’s group has poured more than $1 million so far into the case, driving the Republicans’ argument that the trial is a way for Washington Democrats to throw out a map they don’t like. The trust was formed to fund Democrats' efforts to combat Republicans who sought to solidify their historic win in 2010 through the redistricting process.

“It’s important to recognize that the money is being invested for a reason,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP consultant. “They are trying to achieve in the courts what they couldn’t achieve in the ballot box.”

“Look, the Democrats are desperate to rescramble the districts for 2014, 2016,” he said, adding that if the judge does rule in their favor, “it would be a degree of judicial activism that would be shocking.”

Republicans are also pointing out that the Democrats’ desired outcome could actually hurt minority representation. In order to achieve more Republican districts, minority voters were packed into some districts, like Rep. Corrine Brown’s seat, which snakes from Jacksonville all the way down to Orlando.

“Be careful what you wish for. If you want to play this game, every single African-American could lose their seat,” Wilson said. “Corrine Brown can kiss her seat goodbye.”

Both sides are sure that either way, the ruling will be appealed instantly, dragging the case on for longer and leaving the possibility of it affecting 2014 still in the mix. Florida’s primary isn’t until Aug. 26, and even though the filing deadline has passed, it could be reopened by the court.

“If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, accompanying that would be a new primary process,” McDonald said. “We are starting to run up on the deadlines, but there’s still enough wiggle room so that the state Supreme Court could weigh in in time for the 2014 election.”

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