The Florida Supreme Court has overwhelmingly upheld a trial court’s ruling that the Florida Legislature’s congressional reapportionment plan violated the state constitution’s prohibition against using “partisan intent.”
The 5-2 ruling provided a clear, strong defense of the Fair Districts Amendments approved in 2010 by 63 percent of voters statewide — including 66 percent in Sarasota County and 60 percent in Manatee. The opinion is also notable because it expanded the trial court’s ruling and will send the Legislature back to the drawing board.
The amendments forbid the Legislature from creating redistricting plans or individual districts with the “intent to favor of disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”
Last year, a state-court judge concluded that the Legislature violated the amendment governing districts for the U.S. House of Representatives. Circuit Judge
Terry Lewis found that Republican operatives secretly influenced the map drawing and that key legislators participated in private meetings to discuss redistricting.
Lewis questioned why many relevant emails and documents had been deleted — even though it was apparent that the records could be evidence in court.
At the time of his ruling, Lewis ordered the Legislature to redraw two of the 27 new congressional districts, which occurred before the 2014 elections.
On Thursday, the state’s high court went further, taking a cue from Ron Popeil, the infomercial king: But wait, there’s more!
The court determined that the partisan intent of the Legislature undermined the 2012 redistricting plan “as a whole.” The ruling stated: “We thus conclude that the appropriate remedy at this juncture is to require the Legislature to redraw the map, based on the directions set forth by this court.”
The justices did not technically require the Legislature to redraw the entire map.
The court instructed the Legislature to redo eight districts — four represented by Republicans, four by Democrats.
District 16, which includes all of Sarasota County and nearly all of Manatee, was not among the eight. Neither was District 17, which covers part of eastern Manatee. The Supreme Court recognized, though, that districts adjacent to those to be redrawn could be affected. That is a concern because Districts 13 and 14, which will be redone, are directly north of Manatee County; we hope the new maps will not affect District 16, which is compact and serves the Manatee-Sarasota region well.
As we have recognized, the 2012 redistricting process improved upon past efforts.
But, in light of the Legislature’s defiance of the constitutional amendment, it’s encouraging that the Supreme Court set guidelines and parameters for the next round.
For example, the court encouraged the Legislature to “conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.” The court said the Legislature should provide a mechanism for public debate on proposals for alternative maps submitted by the public. Additionally, the court said the Legislature should preserve all emails and documents related to the redrawing of the map — it shouldn’t take a court declaration for those things to happen — and to “publicly document the justifications for its chosen configurations.”
The Legislature would be well advised to follow the court’s directions. There is a movement in Florida and nationwide for states to amend their constitutions to allow independent commissions to perform redistricting. The U.S. Supreme Court recently found that practice constitutional in Arizona.
It’s true, as the Florida high court wrote, that redistricting efforts in 2002 and in previous years were rife with partisanship and incumbent protectionism. But, as parents tell their children, just because everyone else is doing it, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Plus, as the latest ruling emphasized, such actions are plainly unconstitutional.