Redistricting ruling could change Florida's political landscape

The News Service of Florida | The Gainesville Sun | 07/13/2014

TALLAHASSEE — Members of Congress, candidates and political observers are grappling with the fallout of a judge’s Thursday ruling that two of the state’s congressional districts were illegally drawn for partisan reasons.

Lawyers on Friday were preparing to ask Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis to move quickly to prescribe a remedy for the flawed map. Meanwhile, Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown blasted Lewis’s decision, while a former congressman blamed the ruling after pulling the plug on a comeback attempt.

While Lewis declared that the GOP-dominated Legislature’s maps were unconstitutional under the state’s anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters in 2010, he did not specifically lay out a fix for the districts. He could redraw the lines himself or order lawmakers to do it.

Most observers assume that the November elections would not be affected by Lewis’s decision. But there are even lingering questions about that.

“He’s held the maps unconstitutional, and you’re not supposed to have elections under an unconstitutional map,” David King, an attorney for voting-rights groups that opposed the maps, said shortly after the ruling was handed down Thursday evening.

In a separate conversation Friday, King said his side would ask Lewis as soon as next week to issue a ruling on what needs to be done to correct the map.

At the center of the ruling were districts represented by Brown and Republican Congressman Dan Webster. Brown’s district, which winds from Jacksonville to Orlando and includes parts of Alachua and Marion counties, is sometimes criticized as one of the most gerrymandered seats in the nation.

Lewis found that the sprawling nature of the district wasn’t needed to protect the opportunity for black voters in Northeast Florida to elect a candidate of their choice. Lewis found that, because some of the decisions made in drawing the district weren’t necessary, lawmakers violated the Fair Districts amendments that bar maps that help political parties or candidates.

Critics have argued that Brown’s district aids Republicans in neighboring seats by carving out enclaves of Democratic-leaning voters.

But in a statement Friday attacking the ruling — her second comment in as many days — Brown said the district was necessary.

“Overturning the current District 5 map ignores the essential redistricting principle of maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts,” she said.

“Certainly, minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district ‘compactness,’ while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments minority communities across the state.”

Lewis also ruled that an “appendage” of white voters added to Webster’s Congressional District 10, which lawmakers said was part of their efforts to create a Central Florida district where Hispanics could influence the outcome of elections, was meant to help the Republican congressman and was unconstitutional.

The ruling suggests that a redrawn map would only have to make the changes necessary to fix those two districts.

But because all congressional districts have to have roughly the same population, any changes to the Brown and Webster districts could shift the borders of others. A half-dozen districts touch Brown’s, and Webster’s borders on some of those districts as well as three others.

For example, the District 7 seat of Republican Congressman John Mica could also be affected by tweaks to Brown’s district. Lewis specifically found fault with the decision to move some black voters from Mica’s district into Brown’s territory.

Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant, said both Webster and Mica could face stiffer Democratic challenges if their districts are changed.

“It’s not like a four- or five-seat change in the process,” he said. “But you take two seats that were out of play and you put them in play, that’s going to have an impact.”

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said that Webster’s district in particular was already close. Even relatively small swings could upend the political balance.

While the state hasn’t announced a decision — and, indeed, Lewis retained jurisdiction over the case in his order — the Legislature is widely expected to appeal. But Jewett said that might not change much, given the generally liberal nature of the majority on the state Supreme Court and the fact that the justices had already ordered lawmakers to redraw the Senate maps.

“It’s pretty likely that the Florida Supreme Court is going to agree with (Lewis’) decision,” Jewett said.

But Jewett raised the prospect that Republicans could go to federal court and argue that redrawing Brown’s district would violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

Former Congressman David Rivera, ousted from office by Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia two years ago, announced on his Facebook page that he was withdrawing from his attempt to return to Washington.

The district Rivera was running in was not one of the ones singled out by Lewis in Thursday’s ruling.

“In essence, liberal activist judges are hijacking the reapportionment process and holding congressional candidates like myself hostage until the appeals process concludes at the liberal Democrat-dominated Florida Supreme Court,” Rivera said, adding that he would make a bid to return to the state Legislature in 2016.

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