TALLAHASSEE Florida's re-drawn congressional map intentionally favors Republicans in violation of the anti-gerrymandering standards voters approved in 2010 and will have to be re-drawn, according to a ruling late Thursday from a Tallahassee judge.
The judge found particular problems with two seats that knife through Central Florida, held by Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden.
The 41-page order from Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will almost certainly be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. But if the decision is upheld, lawmakers or the courts could have to go back to the drawing board to design congressional seats throughout Central Florida to comply with the Fair Districts mandate that seats not be drawn to intentionally favor incumbents or parties.
In his ruling, Lewis quoted President George Washington's farewell address warning of associations of "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men" who could subvert the will of voters.
Lewis wrote the case "goes to the very foundation of our representative democracy," and found fault with Central Florida districts in particular District 5 held by Brown, D-Jacksonville, which Lewis wrote was unnecessarily drawn to protect Brown, and District 10 held by Webster, R-Winter Garden, which "was drawn to benefit the Republican Party and the incumbent."
Brown's district was drawn specifically to be competitive for an African-American candidate to comply with federal and state laws, but Lewis ruled legislative staff went too far by adding additional minority voters. That decision also throws into limbo the neighboring seat held by 11-term Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.
Lewis also wrote the districts surrounding Webster's, including the one held by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, would have to be redrawn as a result.
Florida voters in 2010 passed two constitutional amendments known as the Fair Districts amendments which required lawmakers to draw legislative and congressional seats more compactly, within existing geographic and local government boundaries, and without intentional favoritism toward political parties or incumbents. Immediately after the Florida Legislature passed its first attempt at maps, the Florida Supreme Court in 2012 ruled the state Senate seats violated the mandate and ordered them redrawn.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups then filed suit in state court, and have alleged in a two-year legal battle that Republican lawmakers violated a constitutional ban on gerrymandering when they drew the congressional maps.
For more than two weeks in May and June, top politicians, operatives and legislative staffers have testified in a Tallahassee circuit court about the map-drawing process, and allegations by plaintiffs that GOP lawmakers, staffers and consultants worked together behind the scenes to draw Republican-friendly seats.
While GOP lawmakers, consultants and staffs professed innocence throughout the trial, Lewis wrote there was "too much circumstantial evidence of it, too many coincidences" to uphold the maps.
But the judge reserved much of the blame in his ruling for the GOP political operatives, which he wrote "made a mockery of the Legislature's proclaimed open and transparent process" by working to draw partisan maps "in the shadow of that process."
During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs showed how House redistricting staff met twice with GOP consultants, and one of former House Speaker Dean Cannon’s top aides gave draft versions of the maps to another GOP consultant, Marc Reichelderfer, in 2011 before they were publicly released.
Testimony also showed that other maps drawn by Republican Party of Florida director of House campaigns Frank Terraferma ended up in the hands of GOP consultant Rich Heffley, and were ultimately entered into the public record under the name of a former Florida State University engineering student.
The student later claimed he never submitted them to the Legislature or created the email address used to send them.
In his ruling, Lewis zeroed in on email correspondence between Terraferma, the consultants then working for Central Florida Republicans, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who was then overseeing the House redistricting effort, as evidence of collaboration.
He also singled out an email from Cannon to Reichelderfer that the congressional map "was in fine shape" so long as the Senate listened to "concerns" expressed by Reichelderfer and Heffley.
"Indeed, many of the maps and partial maps the consultants focused on seemed to be in the Central Florida area, which coincidentally were the areas in the enacted map I have found to be problematic," Lewis wrote.
David King, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he expected the ruling would be passed through to the state Supreme Court.
"Anybody that reads that decision in its entirety will think that is a very thoughtful approach," King said.
"When you have so many coincidences that all go in the same direction to make the map helpful for Republicans it strains credibility."
King, though, stopped short of saying the lawmakers and staff perjured themselves when they testified over two weeks that the maps were not drawn with partisan intent.
"What's more important here according to Judge Lewis is not what they say but what they did," he said. "What they did establishes that they did favor the Republican Party in these districts and Judge Lewis was not willing to abide by that."
Spokespeople for the House and Senate said the Legislature was "reviewing the decision."