Editorial: Court's ruling a victory for voters

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 07/10/2015

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday put the law and democracy ahead of partisan gamesmanship by striking down the state's congressional maps. By ordering that eight districts across the state be redrawn, including two in the Tampa Bay area, the court delivered a blow against entrenched incumbents and special interests and laid the foundation for fairer elections with truly representative results. To follow up on its sharp rebuke, the court must now ensure the Florida Legislature complies with both the letter and spirit of the order.

The 5-2 ruling came after a state court challenge to the 2012 redistricting process, a routine by the Legislature to redraw state and congressional districts every decade to reflect the most recent changes in population captured by the U.S. census. This was the first time districts had been redrawn since voters had amended the state Constitution to impose Fair District rules, which prohibit favoring incumbents or parties in making the maps.

The justices upheld the finding last year by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis that Republican political operatives conspired to manipulate the process, and that the final maps approved by the GOP-led Legislature were drawn in violation of the Fair District amendments.

But the majority said Lewis, in rejecting only two districts, stopped too short. The court ordered that eight districts — four apiece held by Republicans and Democrats — be redrawn, including District 13, held by David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and District 14, held by Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

By further defining the reaches of the Fair District amendments, which Florida voters approved in 2010, the court majority explicitly said how lawmakers must prove that new electoral districts are constitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente stated flatly that "there is no acceptable level of improper intent," a crystal clear admonition against partisan maneuvering. And the court vowed to remain vigilant, saying it had an "important duty" to honor the intent of the voters.

Most immediately, the ruling could cause a scramble in the eight districts ordered redrawn and in 14 others that border them in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The court ordered the Legislature to present new maps by October, in time for candidate qualifying. And it provided clear guidance why the districts singled out failed to pass muster. In Districts 13 and 14 in the bay area, for example, the court noted that a portion of St. Petersburg was included in Castor's Tampa-area district in order to move black voters from Jolly's Pinellas-only district, thus ensuring it "was more favorable to the Republican Party."

"Accordingly," the court ruled, "Districts 13 and 14 must be redrawn to avoid crossing Tampa Bay."

Thursday's ruling will affect far more than the eight named districts and their representatives. There will be a cascading effect on adjoining districts as lawmakers decide which neighborhoods to add or shave to satisfy the court. The net result should be districts that are more demographically balanced and competitive — a far cry from the current reality in a state that voted twice for Barack Obama, that has more registered Democrats than Republicans — and yet still has 17 Republicans in the U.S. House to the Democrats' 10.

The ruling also underscores the sad fact that even as voters exercise the best of intentions in passing measures such as the Fair District amendments, state lawmakers find a way to subvert them. On that score, the court set out guidelines as the Legislature prepares to redraw the districts. It encouraged lawmakers to hold meetings in public, to record any secret meetings, to welcome public input and feedback on the maps and to preserve all emails and documents in order to avoid protracted litigation.

That the court felt compelled in this day and age to plead for such a basic level of openness in a state where transparency is already enshrined in the Constitution says something about what the public and the judicial branch are up against. For now, though, the ruling promises a fresh start. The court needs to ensure the new maps pass the expansive test the Constitution requires. And voters need to look beyond this victory by seeking a new constitutional amendment that hands this job to an independent redistricting commission.

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