Ruling That Rejects 2 Florida Districts' Borders Casts Haze Over Coming Elections

Lizette Alvarez | The New York Times | 07/11/2014

TAMPA, Fla. — After political operatives helped redraw the boundaries of Florida’s Fifth Congressional District, now held by Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat, it snaked all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando, packing in more Democrats, but also benefiting Republicans in nearby districts. In a similar process in the 10th District, in the Orlando suburb of Winter Garden, an “appendage” was tacked on benefiting the incumbent, Representative Daniel Webster, a Republican.

On Thursday night in a scathing decision, a state court judge tossed aside those district lines, saying they “made a mockery” of a voter-approved amendment meant to inject fairness into a process that has long been politically tainted.

But Judge Terry P. Lewis’s blistering attack offered no remedy or timetable for fixing the boundaries. With Florida’s primary election only six weeks away, it is unclear whether voters will cast ballots on Aug. 26 and then on Nov. 4 based on a map that a judge has declared unconstitutional — or whether changes, if they withstand appeal, will be postponed until 2016.

What is clear is that Judge Lewis found that the districts’ boundaries wandered in indefensible

ways, benefiting the Republican Party. This, he wrote, was a violation of two constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 and meant to stamp out a history of political shenanigans.

The 13-day trial in May and June, a result of a lawsuit brought more than two years ago by the League of Women Voters and other groups, revealed the inner workings of the redistricting process, as a parade of lawmakers, staff members, consultants and experts took the stand. It was a rarity, election experts said, because judges in other states typically grant lawmakers great deference, making it all but impossible to obtain details when the redistricting process is said to be unfairly molded by lawmakers.

“The judge didn’t allow the State Legislature to invoke their legislative privilege,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida and an expert on redistricting. “The Legislature had to divulge a lot of what was going on.”

In this case, the judge found that Republican operatives covertly manipulated the process by using “proxies” who appeared as concerned citizens at public redistricting forums and submitted proposed maps. But while assuring the public that the rules were being followed, senior legislative staff members and political consultants were emailing one another. In one case, a legislative staff member slipped a Republican official a flash drive loaded with maps before they were released to the public.

The judge also found that lawmakers and political consultants had deleted “almost all” of their emails and other documents related to redistricting, knowing a lawsuit was likely. The machinations continued. One map was submitted under the name of a Republican college student who said he never saw it.

Lawmakers also told the court that they had met in secret with political operatives and staff members. A Republican consultant, Pat Bainter, was granted permission by the Florida Supreme Court to testify behind closed doors, out of view of the public and the news media.

The Republican officials who helped draw the districts, Judge Lewis wrote, “did, in fact, conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”

The result was that Ms. Brown’s Fifth District at one point narrows “to the width of Highway 17,” the judge wrote. The judge ruled that both it and the 10th District must be redrawn, a move likely to have ripple effects in Central Florida, which is tilting more Democratic.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to appeal the ruling to the State Supreme Court to try to obtain a delay until after the elections, Republican consultants said.

“The election is coming at us like a freight train,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. Throwing out the maps at this stage, he said, “would have a large and disproportionate impact on everyone.”

Democrats do not see it that way. They are hopeful that new boundaries can be approved in the next few weeks.

“Floridians shouldn’t have to elect their representatives from unconstitutionally drawn districts,” said Dan Gelber, a former state legislator and lawyer who has worked with the groups who brought the lawsuit.

But the ticking clock may be their biggest adversary. The Florida Supreme Court is in recess, for starters.

“I am one of the people in the hopeful camp,” said Rod Smith, who was the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party from 2011 to 2013. “But it’s unlikely it will impact this year’s election.”

As Professor McDonald put it, “This is like the cliffhanger at the end of a movie.”

© 2014 The New York Times Company

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