Highest court must settle redistricting

Joe Brown | The Tampa Tribune | 07/15/2015

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled congressional maps drawn by the Legislature following the 2010 census resulted in political gerrymandering, and thereby were unconstitutional. The justices ordered new districts be created within 100 days.

This follows a ruling a year ago by Judge Terry P. Lewis that two of Florida’s congressional districts were unconstitutional and “made a mockery” of the voter-approved Fair Districts amendment, and thus had to be redrawn. I guess they’ll get it right eventually.

The court ruled that lawmakers specifically must redraw eight of the state’s congressional districts, which will end up affecting all 27 of them in some way. Locally, this includes the 13th and 14th Districts, now held by Reps. David Jolly and Kathy Castor. The reshaping will threaten incumbents and possibly entice some challengers who otherwise might not have run for office (see Crist, Charlie). In other words, we might end up with some competitive races, which is what the Fair Districts amendment was designed to produce.

The League of Women Voters and other groups that challenged the redistricting are claiming victory, but they shouldn’t uncork any champagne yet. Another district ordered redrawn, the 5th, held by Rep. Corrine Brown, could put a stop to the whole process by invoking, of all things, the Voting Rights Act.

“This decision by the Florida Supreme Court is seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters,” Brown said in a statement released after the court’s ruling. “Overturning the current District 5 map ignores the essential redistricting principle of maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts. Certainly, 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 is likely to take her case to federal court, and we can blame a lot of this on the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite numerous rulings in the 1990s on voting districts, the nation’s highest court still hasn’t answered the most important question: Is it constitutionally permissible to create congressional districts to guarantee minority representation? The justices haven’t given the country clear guidance.

So we have a state statute that demands compact districts devoid of any gerrymandering, but it conflicts with a federal practice that mandates race-conscious political units. Again, the nation’s highest court eventually will have to decide which one is constitutional.

Who knows what Florida’s congressional map will look like for the 2016 election, because the same folks who drew and redrew the challenged districts will be drawing them again.

That’s why I propose another constitutional amendment be on the ballot next year: the establishment of an independent redistricting commission.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission created by Arizona voters in 2000 was constitutional. They were fed up with politicians picking their voters instead of the other way around, and it worked. After the 2010 Census, the commission drew a new congressional map based on the traditional principles of compactness and contiguousness, not politics.

As a result, the state elected five Democrats and four Republicans to the U.S. House in 2012. The Republican-controlled Legislature was outraged and filed a lawsuit to regain its redistricting power, but the court turned it down.

Voters here need to follow Arizona’s example. Eleven states have commissions of some sort that handle the bulk of the redistricting process. Arizona and California have eliminated their legislatures from the procedure entirely. The Supreme Court has given others the power to do the same.

Regardless of what party is in power, politicians will look out for their best interests, not voters’. It’s time for the people to pick their representatives, not the other way around. We can but hope the Supreme Court agrees.

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