Florida Supreme Court rejects congressional districts; orders Legislature to redraw maps

Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster[ck_comma] James L. Rosica | Naples Daily News | 07/10/2015

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court has ordered state lawmakers to redraw eight of the state’s congressional districts, including one in Southwest Florida, saying the most recent redistricting process was “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

In a 5-2 ruling Thursday, the court said the congressional maps don’t meet the requirements of a voter approved constitutional amendment prohibiting political lines from being drawn to favor incumbents or a political party. The court ordered the Legislature to draw the maps again.

“The Legislature itself proclaimed that it would conduct the most open and transparent redistricting process in the history of the state, and then made important decisions, affecting numerous districts in the enacted map, outside the purview of public scrutiny,” the ruling said.

Eight districts must be redrawn, but the court acknowledged 14 bordering districts might also have to be changed. That could mean 22 of the 27 congressional districts could be affected.

Among the districts being sent back to the drawing board is Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s District 25, which stretches across the state and includes portions of Collier and Hendry counties.

The most recent redistricting effort assigned District 25 a section of a divided Hendry County, which lawmakers at the time said was based on concerns related to the Voting Rights Act. Hendry County was a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, meaning federal permission was needed before any changes could be made.

In its ruling Thursday, the court rejected the justification for splitting Hendry County, in part because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, which effectively invalidated the pre-clearance process.

Diaz-Balart said in a statement Thursday he was still reviewing the opinion “and will be interested to see what the state Legislature will do.”

Dave Carpenter, the qualifying officer for the Collier County Supervisor of Elections, said it’s unclear what impact the court’s ruling will have on the district’s boundaries within Collier County.

“Where the change will be made, I can’t fathom a guess,” he said. “All we can hope for is that the Legislature, with all due speed, gets the situation corrected.”

The ruling, written by Justice Barbara Pariente, allowed for 100 days for fixes to the maps, essentially setting a deadline of mid-October. The ruling also noted that the congressional qualifying period “is not far away.”

Candidates hoping to run for federal offices, such as U.S. House, can qualify during a weeklong period in early May 2016.

The short-time frame outlined in the ruling likely means another special session this year. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, were reviewing the ruling and both men declined to comment.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and others challenged the new maps in 2012, saying the congressional districts were drawn to favor the GOP.

The court’s decision went further than a trial court’s previous ruling, and also directed two Tampa area districts to be reconfigured to “avoid crossing Tampa Bay.”

The 13th congressional district, held by Republican Rep. David Jolly, doesn’t cross the bay, but the nearby 14th District, held by Democrat Rep. Kathy Castor, does, sweeping from Tampa over the water to envelop St. Petersburg.

The court said such boundaries “added more Democratic voters to an already safely Democratic District 14, while ensuring that District 13 was more favorable to the Republican Party.”

The ruling will also affect districts in South Florida held by Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel, and Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The northeast Florida district held by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown will also be affected. Her oddly shaped district is often used as an obvious case of gerrymandered districts, and is designed to contain a majority of African-Americans.

Last year, a Tallahassee-based Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled there was enough evidence to show consultants helped manipulate the redistricting process. He ruled two of the state’s 27 districts were invalid, and lawmakers responded by drawing a new map.

In the ruling Thursday, the court questioned whether the full extent of the political maneuver had been exposed.

“Since many of the emails were deleted or destroyed, we still may have only a partial picture of the behind-the-scenes political tactics,” wrote Pariente.

The opinion also included a testy exchange between Pariente and Justice Charles Canady, who joined Justice Ricky Polston in dissent. Canady called the ruling “an extreme distortion of the appellate process,” saying the majority took it upon itself to rewrite the rules of redistricting.

Pariente addressed the critique in her opinion for the majority, saying the majority “categorically reject the dissent’s many derisive criticisms.”

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