Secret meetings, destroyed records, lost faith

Editorial Board | Sun Sentinel | 07/14/2014

Score this round for Florida voters.

In a ruling last week that threw out the state’s congressional district map, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that state lawmakers had violated their “constitutional duty” to draw districts without gerrymandering them to favor incumbents or their parties.

It was the voters who imposed that duty in 2010 when they approved the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution. The process Lewis described was anything but fair — for voters.

The judge ordered the boundaries of two congressional districts to be redrawn after he concluded that the maps approved in 2012 were devised to accomodate Republican political operatives. In the lawsuit, court documents showed emails and other redistricting documents had been destroyed.

While legislators were holding public hearings on redistricting around the state and trumpeting the most “transparent” process ever, the operatives were working behind the scenes with legislative staff to devise maps “in the shadow of that process,” the judge wrote.

They “made a mockery of the Legislature’s transparent and open process of redistricting,” Lewis concluded in a blistering 41-page ruling.

Last month, following the evidence that led to this week’s ruling, the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and many others across the state expressed serious doubts that the redistricting process had honored the will of the voters. In his ruling, Lewis bore out those doubts.

The judge flagged two districts on the congressional map. The first held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, whose district snakes its way from Jacksonville to Orlando. Changes to the district for the 2012 map added more Democratic voters, benefitting both Brown and Republicans in nearby districts.

The other district is held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a two-term Republican. His district includes an appendage on its east side that makes it friendlier to the GOP.

The judge stopped short of blaming legislative leaders themselves for rigging the districts, but he was skeptical that they didn’t know about the key role consultants were playing. Regardless, the buck must stop with those leaders on the outcome of a process for which they are ultimately responsible.

Rather than accept Lewis’ ruling, legislative leaders are expected to appeal the decision. The case could end in state Supreme Court and postpone any redrawing of congressional maps until after this year’s elections.

If Lewis’ ruling is upheld, it’ll force changes in neighboring districts, too. But, most political observers doubt the changes will extend into South Florida.

Maybe it’s predictable politicians would try an end run around a mandate from voters to conduct an apolitical redistricting process. That doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

Copyright © 2014, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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