Florida redistricting ruling could be felt for decades

Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel | 07/11/2014

TALLAHASSEE—Central Florida’s political geography could be scrambled thanks to a court’s ruling that the Legislature’s congressional maps tilted too far to help elect Republicans.

The fallout could be felt for years as a precedent-setter for future once-a-decade redistricting rounds. But could the ruling short-circuit this year’s elections?

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s scathing, 41-page decision blasted Republican political operatives for making a “mockery” of Florida’s “non-political” redistricting process with a “secret, organized campaign to subvert the supposedly open and transparent redistricting process.”

“They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent,” Lewis wrote, by writing scripts for people to use when testifying, and submitting public maps through third-parties.

So, should elections with such flawed maps go forward this fall? It’s a question all sides are staying mum on for the moment.

The decision that the districts of two Central Florida incumbents were unconstitutional is almost certainly going to be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

“That’s a decision to be made in the coming days,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

If the ruling is upheld, the League of Women Voters of Florida and other plaintiffs have yet to decide if they would seek to have the current maps immediately voided ahead of the November general election.

National Democrats are quietly pushing that option, pointing to the example of Texas where redistricting maps were ruled to violate federal voting-rights protections two years ago and re-drawn by a court within weeks. But that would plunge Florida’s election calender into chaos. Candidate qualifying for federal offices already took place last spring, and the primaries are a month away.

LWV President Deirdre Macnab referred that question to the group’s legal team Friday, saying only that she suspected the two-year court battle still had some twists left.

“We’re not under any delusions that the battle is over,” she said.

It was also unclear Friday if the sides would push to let lawmakers try to draw the maps again, or hand that job over to the courts.

“We had two years to do it properly,” incoming House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “My thought would be to allow the courts to do maps that fit the definition of what the courts will allow, and do it as quickly as possible.”

The trial court’s decision does present a roadmap of sorts for how the redrawn seats of U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, might look.

“Having to fix those unconstitutionally drawn districts is going to have a very significant impact on Central Florida,” said plaintiff lawyer David King.

For starters, any changes will likely affect the whole map.

“The districts are part of an integrated, indivisible whole,” Lewis wrote. “So in that sense, if there is a problem with a part of the map, there is a problem with the entire plan.”

Plaintiff lawyers argued lawmakers used a “shadow” process to intentionally draw GOP-friendlier lines.

Coalition lawyers singled out the meandering seat of Brown, which they say was intentionally “packed” with minorities by GOP consultants and fed into the public record to make the surrounding seats held by Reps. John Mica, R-Winter Park, Webster and others safer.

Brown has held the seat since it was originally drawn y the courts in the 1990s to meander from Jacksonville to Orlando, scooping up African-American voters in order to comply with federal law and allow minorities access to electing a candidate of their choice.

But the congressional map the Legislature adopted in 2012 boosted the African-American voting-age population of Brown’s Jacksonville-to-Orlando district above 50 percent for the first time by adding a “finger-like appendage” from Mica’s district.

The congresswoman blasted the court’s ruling as a violation of federal voting-rights protections for minorities.

“Minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods,” she said in a statement, warning the decision “fragments minority communities across the state.”

But Lewis noted the “ not compact, bizarrely shaped” pattern of Brown’s district, but found it unconstitutional because legislators never sold him on why they needed to make last-minute changes to boost the black voting-age population over 50 percent. The seat had successfully elected Brown for two decades without the extra few percentage-points. The shift also had the effect of helping re-elect Mica.

The change “was done with the intent to benefit the Republican Party,” he said. So, conceivably, that could be an easy fix.

Webster’s district takes in parts of Orange, Lake and northern Polk counties, and Lewis found problems with another “appendage” of mostly white voters which rendered his swing seat safer. Those voters would have otherwise had to go into either Brown’s district of a new Hispanic “opportunity” seat drawn next to it that Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, won. The Legislature argued the swath of white voters had to go to Webster to make sure the other two seats were competitive for minorities.

Lewis didn’t buy it. The Legislature’s move gave Webster back a chunk of the voters he had in his old district, delivering “significant Republican benefit for a competitive district,” Lewis wrote.

Again, fixing that seat may not take a lot of GIS wrenchwork. It could make political ripples, though, by making Webster’s seat more competitive for Democrats.

Webster deputy chief of staff Elizabeth Tyrrell said he was still reviewing the decision, but “remains focused on serving his constituents by fighting for jobs, economic growth and opportunity in Central Florida.”

Copyright © 2014, Orlando Sentinel

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