Ruling gives teeth to redistricting rules | July 15, 2014 | Jeremy Wallace | HT Politics

Jeremy Wallace | Herald Tribune | 07/15/2014

When voters passed a pair of constitutional amendments aimed at ending gerrymandering of Florida’s congressional and legislative districts, many cynics assumed that politicians determined to protect their self- interest would find new, clever ways to circumvent the rules.

And it appears that’s just what happened when the Legislature released new maps for the state’s 27 congressional districts two years ago. Instead of being compact and contiguous as required, many of the districts looked like the same ink blots lawmakers produced before the amendments.

A Tallahassee judge sent shockwaves through the state’s political establishment this week when he ruled that the new congressional district map violated the will of the voters and must be redrawn.

Rather than being a paper tiger, the constitutional amendments passed in 2010 suddenly have legal backing. Legislators are on notice that backroom political efforts violate the spirit of the law, said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which was instrumental in passing the constitutional amendments.

“This gives teeth to the amendments,” Macnab said.

State legislators know that they will be under scrutiny — including from the courts — when they draw the lines.

The amendments required the Legislature to draw congressional and legislative districts that did not favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.

It’s still unclear what happens next. State lawmakers are expected to appeal the decision, and it is not certain when congressional districts would have to be redrawn, including for this year’s election.

But what is clear is this: The courts are far more willing than expected to dissect the Legislature’s actions, and even call lawmakers out for playing games to get around amendments that passed with more than 62 percent of the vote.

The ruling by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis came after testimony that focused on whether the Legislature used a “shadow” process to draw the districts, relying on political consultants and influence — the exact circumstances the 2010 amendments were intended to stop.

Lewis said the evidence convinced him political operatives engaged in a “conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.”

“They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of the process,” Lewis stated.

Critics have long complained that the Florida Legislature has engineered districts to reduce competition for seats. Consider that even though all 27 members of Congress are up for re-election this year, only two contests are considered truly competitive.

Though Lewis’ ruling focused on two districts — one in Jacksonville and one near Orlando — any bid to fix them could have a ripple effect, changing borders in all 27 districts, including the two that cover Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Florida’s 16th District, represented by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, looks less egregious than many, as it includes all of Sarasota County and most of Manatee.

But Florida’s 17th District is a different story. That territory, represented by Rep. Tom Rooney, includes parts of 10 counties, and extends from Hillsborough County to Lakeland to Lake Okeechobee to Port Charlotte.

It takes in part of Manatee, too.

Political experts say districts along the Interstate 4 corridor could be so heavily redrawn, it could affect districts like the 17th, thus altering who represents Sarasota and Manatee in Congress.

The ultimate result could be more competitive districts in Florida, increasing Democrats’ chances of winning seats in Florida, and perhaps more importantly, changing the balance of power in Congress, where Republicans hold the majority of seats.

Advocates of the constitutional amendment in 2010 agreed that the districts drawn in 2012 were more fairly constructed than before, but did not comply with the will of the voters.

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