The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the state legislature to redraw some congressional districts in time for the 2016 election, a move that will have a large impact on South Florida.
The court found the legislature's "redistricting process and resulting map were 'taint[ed]' by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents."
The court specifically required the legislature to redraw five South Florida districts, two Tampa-area districts, and a snake-like district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, plus "all other districts affected thereby."
The affected South Florida districts are represented by:
District 21: Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton;
District 22: Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach;
District 25: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami;
District 26: Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Kendall;
District 27: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Additionally, because districts 23 and 24, represented by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston, and Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, are completely surrounded by these five districts, they will likely have to be redrawn as well.
"When you move pieces of eight districts, there's bound to be a domino effect," Wilson said. "The Supreme Court decision will have to impact my district in some way because it is surrounded by at least half of those that will be redrawn. When they go back to look at the districts, they will not only look at those eight, but will probably consider the entire state."
The order will mean another special session of the Florida Legislature, which already held one in June to pass a budget. And the ruling could set a precedent for a separate case challenging Florida's state Senate districts. That case goes to trial this September in Tallahassee.
The decision comes after years of lawsuits between the state and the supporters of Florida's two Fair District amendments, passed in 2010, that require redistricting maps to be contiguous, compact, and wherever possible, use previously created borders such as city and county lines and geographical features. Moreover, the district maps could not be written to benefit a political party.
In its decision, 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."
During the lawsuit between the state and the League of Women Voters and other civic groups, emails and sworn testimony showed much of the redistricting process had taken place behind closed doors between Republican state legislators and Republican operatives trying to preserve the best possible scenario for their candidates.
The testimony revealed that a political consulting firm called Data Targeting served as a middleman between operatives and the legislature, using third parties to independently submit Republican-approved maps.
Pat Bainter, the Republican political consultant who runs Data Targeting, tried but failed to get those emails sealed. Released on Dec. 1, 2014, they demonstrated an orchestrated effort to maintain an electoral map favorable to incumbents and, especially, the Republican Party.
The trial court, under Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, allowed the map to be replaced with a "remedial redistricting map" that made minor changes. But the Florida Supreme Court tossed that map as well.
"The Supreme Court in the ruling today really took lawmakers to the woodshed, and that's where they belong," said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the groups that sued over the gerrymandered districts. "This process and the litigation that resulted was so unnecessary."
The case now goes back to the trial court, which will oversee the legislature's new attempt at drawing constitutionally compliant maps. Because of the 2016 election, the Supreme Court is requiring the legislature to redraw districts in an expedited manner.
The court will approve a redrawn map within 100 days. During that time, the public should have the opportunity to submit alternative maps.
The state legislature will have to overcome multiple objections to its previously drawn map.
Districts 21 and 22 run parallel to each other along the eastern portion of Broward and Palm Beach counties. The court found that other proposals would better comply with the Fair Districts amendments and ordered the districts to be redrawn.
District 25 includes parts of Miami-Dade, Broward, Hendry and Collier counties. The court found the legislature had improperly split up Hendry County.
"At this stage, I am still reviewing the Florida Supreme Court's opinion, and will be interested to see what the State Legislature will do," said Rep. Diaz-Balart.
In Districts 26 and 27, the court found the legislature had split Homestead, with the effect of turning a Republican-leaning district and a Democratic-leaning one into two Republican districts. The court wrote that "these districts must be redrawn."
Goodman hailed the decision as a win for voters.
"Voters will be choosing their representatives versus what is happening now: Representatives choosing their voters," she said.