Florida Supreme Court strikes down congressional district map

John Kennedy | Palm Beach Post | 07/10/2015

TALLAHASSEE —The political boundaries of districts held by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch, both Palm Beach County Democrats, are among eight congressional seats the Florida Supreme Court ordered redrawn Thursday in a sweeping ruling.

The 5-2 decision marks the second time in two years that the congressional map crafted by the Republican-controlled Legislature was found in violation of voter-approved constitutional standards that prohibit drawing district lines to help incumbents or a political party.

Justices gave lawmakers 100 days – until Oct. 17 – to convene a special session to rework the map so it can be ready for next year’s elections.

And while only eight districts were singled out in violation by the court, the rewrite may force changes across another 14 neighboring districts in the state, including Palm Beach County’s other two districts, held by Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings and Patrick Murphy. As a result, 22 of the state’s 27 congressional districts could be affected by Thursday’s ruling.

Redistricting expert Michael McDonald of the University of Florida said, “The consequences of this ruling are tremendous. This really is chaos.”

Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which was among the plaintiffs in the case, praised justices for showing that “our democratic system is not broken.”

“The Supreme Court took the Legislature to the woodshed,” added Goodman, of Palm Beach Gardens, whose organization was joined by Florida Common Cause and several Democratic voters in challenging the congressional plan.

The league also is leading a coalition of voters’ groups that claim state Senate district boundaries are similarly unconstitutional. That case is slated for trial in Leon County in September.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said they were reviewing Thursday’s decision and would not immediately comment.

The eight districts targeted by justices include four held by Democrats and four by Republicans.

The Democrats are Frankel of West Palm Beach, Deutch of Boca Raton, Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Kathy Castor of Tampa. Republicans are Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, all of Miami, and David Jolly, from the St. Petersburg area.

“Florida’s congressional maps and redistricting are in the hands of the state Legislature,” said Erin Hale, a spokeswoman for Frankel. “The congresswoman is working hard to serve the residents of Palm Beach and Broward County. This Supreme Court decision will not change her focus on her constituents.”

Brown, whose district stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, could undergo the most dramatic change.

Justices said her north-south district, with a sizable minority population, “must” be reconfigured to stretch east-to-west, from Jacksonville toward Tallahassee.

Voters’ groups challenging the congressional map say the current contours of Brown’s District 5 dilutes Democratic voting strength across Central Florida.

By packing minority voters into Brown’s boundaries, plaintiffs made the argument to justices that adjacent districts tend to vote Republican.

Brown was angered by the justices’ ruling.

“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,” Brown said.

During 12 days of testimony in a trial last year, email and other evidence showed that during the Legislature’s redrawing of districts in 2012, Republican Party consultants were given preview looks at proposed boundaries from legislative staffers and possibly managed to have GOP-favoring maps they crafted secretly submitted at public hearings.

Legislators and staff also admitted to deleting critical email and taking part in closed-door redistricting meetings with top Republican Party officials in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

The judge in the trial, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, called the Republican effort a “mockery” of the once-a-decade redistricting process and the so-called Fair Districts amendments approved by voters in 2010, and he ordered the congressional map redrawn but in more limited way than the justices ordered Thursday.

Lewis’ order invalidating the 2012 map said districts held by Brown and Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, were drawn to help Florida Republicans. That prompted the Legislature to meet in special session last summer to redraw the boundaries of Brown and Webster’s districts, along with five nearby districts in North and Central Florida.

Lewis endorsed that rewrite but allowed the 2012 map to still be used in the 2014 elections since the August primaries were fast-approaching.

Justices ruled that Lewis’ remedy didn’t go far enough. They also acknowledged that the full scope of the Republican backroom deal-making may not be known.

“Since many of the e-mails were deleted or destroyed, we still may have only a partial picture of the behind-the-scenes political tactics,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority in the 5-2 opinion. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented.

The majority also gave lawmakers toughly worded directions to make all their decisions in public when it redraws the map this time, saving all emails and documents generated.

David King, attorney for the voters’ coalition, called Thursday’s ruling a “great victory. A complete victory.”

“The court has made it abundantly clear that partisan gerrymandering will not be tolerated,” he added. “We look forward to the legislature following the constitution and the directives of the court.”

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