Editorial: Victory for voters on districts

A Tampa Bay Times Editorial | Tampa Bay Times | 07/13/2014

A circuit judge’s decision to invalidate Florida’s congressional map is a victory for voters who demanded fairly drawn districts and a defeat for powerful legislators who still rigged the game to help their friends. Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ order is a sweeping indictment of the secrecy and insider dealing that characterized the redrawing of the congressional districts. His decision is certain to be appealed, but the Florida Supreme Court should promptly affirm his decision and direct the Legislature to try again.

Voters could not have been clearer when they amended the state Constitution in
2010 to require that congressional and legislative districts be drawn without
regard to protecting incumbents or political parties. Yet Lewis heard more than
enough evidence to reasonably conclude lawmakers ignored those rules in 2012
and order that two congressional districts be redrawn, which would create a
ripple effect and require other districts to be adjusted. One of the invalid
districts has been held for more than two decades by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, an African-American Democrat from Jacksonville. The other is an Orlando area district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a white Republican.

Brown’s sprawling district, which runs from Jacksonville to Orlando and at one point narrows to the width of a road, has been problematic since it was first drawn in 1992. The 2012 version increased the black voting-age population in the district even though Brown has always held it, and Lewis found Republicans packed the district with more black voters to benefit the Republican Party in surrounding districts. Brown predictably is critical of Lewis’ decision, but federal voting rights protections for minority voters are not intended to act as permanent incumbent protection and do not require lawmakers to draw such bizarre districts.

Republican legislative leaders have fought redistricting reform at every step. They opposed the constitutional amendments, and voters approved them. They argued they should not have been required to testify in this lawsuit, and the Florida Supreme Court disagreed. They sided with a Republican consultant who did not want to testify or produce documents in the trial, and the Supreme Court ruled against them even though it kept those documents and the testimony secret for now. Lewis said those documents provided no smoking gun but were “very helpful” to him and “evidenced a conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.” No wonder the consultant has tried so hard to hide behind the bogus claim of trade secrets. Those documents and his testimony should be unsealed by the Supreme Court so Floridians can fully judge for themselves what went on here.

Even the public trial testimony paints a disturbing picture of Republican legislative leaders who created a facade of openness during redistricting when something else was going on entirely: secret meetings between now-Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, secret meetings and emails with Republican operatives, destroyed public records and a publicly submitted congressional map under the name of a college student who knew nothing about it.

Voters demanded better, and the Legislature failed them. The outcome of the redistricting trial is the first step toward making lawmakers follow the state Constitution.

The next step should be the Supreme Court upholding Lewis’ decision and directing the Legislature to redraw the congressional districts.

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