TALLAHASSEE — In a blow to Florida’s ruling Republicans, a judge Thursday night threw out the state’s congressional district map, ruling that party consultants illegally helped craft boundaries which helped the GOP retain power.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis specifically cited two districts as violating the state constitution’s prohibition on drawing boundaries to help incumbents or a party: the serpentine Jacksonville-to-Orlando district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and partially contiguous Central Florida district held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster.
Brown’s district was designed to include a majority of black voters, who tend to vote Democratic, to bolster GOP prospects of winning neighboring seats.
Webster’s district was modified to make it more Republican, Lewis concluded.
The judge rejected challenges to three Palm Beach County congressional districts held by Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel. But attempts to rework the boundaries of the two districts cited by Lewis could change the contours of nearby districts – although reaching Palm Beach County appears remote.
Lewis’ ruling follows a two-week trial ending last month in the challenge to the Legislature’s 2012 redistricting. The lawsuit was brought by the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and several Democratic voters.
The decision’s impact remained unclear late Thursday. Attorneys on both sides earlier speculated that a ruling against the Legislature would not force congressional boundaries to be rewritten before this year’s elections.
But David King, attorney for the voters’ groups, told The Palm Beach Post that’s not guaranteed, although he said he expected the court’s decision to be appealed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“You can’t hold elections when a congressional map has been declared unconstitutional,” King said.
Reached Thursday night, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said only, “We are reviewing the ruling.”
In his 41-page order, the judge saved his most stinging criticism for Republican campaign strategists.
During 12 days of testimony last month, email and other evidence presented showed consultants getting early looks at proposed boundaries from legislative staffers and possibly getting Republican-friendly maps submitted in public hearings under fake names.
Legislators and staff also admitted to deleting key email, and taking part in closed-door redistricting meetings with top Republican Party official in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
“What is clear to me from the evidence…is that this group of Republican consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” Lewis wrote.
He went on, “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process, utilizing the access it gave them to the decision makers, but going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”
Central to the case are the so-called Fair Districts constitutional requirements approved by Florida voters in 2010, which prohibit legislators from drawing district boundaries that intentionally help or hurt incumbent lawmakers or parties.
Attorneys for the voters’ groups argued that once that restriction was in place, Republicans began creating a “shadow process,” in which redistricting would appear to be conducted openly and without partisan shadings even as party operatives worked secretly to tilt maps in their favor.
The Legislature’s attorneys said the opponents’ case was built solely on “innuendo.”
Redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries happens once every 10 years to reflect population changes in the latest U.S. Census. In the latest round, Florida gained two congressional seats, because of the state’s population gain.
Republicans held 19 of Florida’s 25 congressional districts going into redistricting. Following the 2012 elections, that margin was trimmed to 17 Republican seats and 10 held by Democrats.
Still, in a state where Democrats top Republicans by almost 500,000 registered voters, the congressional imbalance both puzzles and infuriates many Democrats.
While Lewis in his ruling was harsh on the role consultants played in redistricting, he also implied that the state’s Republican legislative leaders knew what they were doing when they invited party strategists to attend secret meetings held shortly after voters approved the Fair Districts amendments.
Former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, Weatherford and current Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, were among those who testified at last month’s trial that these meetings were just intended to tell consultants they could not advise lawmakers on maps.
Lewis seemed unconvinced the meetings were so innocent.
“It doesn’t look good if you are promoting openness, transparency and neutrality in the redistricting process,” Lewis wrote of the huddles with consultants.
“There was really no reason to convene two meetings just to tell active political partisans of the Republican Party that they would not ‘have a seat at the table.’ A letter or email would suffice.