Dockery: Consider independent redistricting panel

Paula Dockery | Tampa Bay Times | 07/16/2015

The recent Florida Supreme Court decision was a big win for fair districts, which makes it a big win for Florida voters.

On a 5-2 vote, the court ruled that the Florida Legislature failed to draw congressional districts in accordance with the Constitution and required legislators to redraw eight of the congressional districts within 100 days.

The focus thus far seems to be on the disruptive effect on the 2016 congressional races, with all kinds of predictions on how the redrawn districts may impact who runs and who has a better chance of winning.

To redraw eight seats, many other neighboring seats will be affected. When the districts change, congressional incumbents might have to compete against each other or run in less favorable districts.

But the focus should be on how this represents a big win for Florida voters, upholding the constitutional standards that won 63 percent approval in 2010.

Let's take a look at what's happened since the Fair Districts amendments passed.

After the Legislature approved the new districts after the 2010 U.S. census, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause challenged the congressional and Florida Senate maps. (The Senate challenge is still in the courts.)

In the congressional districts case, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled in the plaintiffs' favor on both the law and the facts, but his remedy preserved the status quo for last year. He sent the plan back to the Legislature after determining that the Republican majorities had blatantly engaged in constitutionally prohibited practices.

When the Legislature returned its modified plan to the court, only a handful of precincts were changed in two congressional districts. Lewis ruled that plan constitutional, a decision which, if upheld, would have set a horrible precedent and sent a clear message to whichever party is in power that it's okay to violate Florida's Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled that while Lewis was correct in interpreting the facts of the 2012 congressional redistricting process and the law, his remedy was not only wrong in those two districts but in six additional districts.

The Florida court seemed emboldened by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Arizona case. Florida Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority, said as much.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority in upholding independent redistricting commissions in the Arizona case, argued not only against gerrymandering but in favor of the ultimate power of the people to influence the drawing of district lines, saying "our fundamental instrument of government derives its authority from 'we the people.' "

While the courts have upheld both independent redistricting and anti-gerrymandering standards, there are still two issues remaining.

First, there is nothing to guarantee that the Legislature will draw fair districts in its third attempt. If they don't, how can we be sure the Florida Supreme Court will continue to rule plans unconstitutional? Lewis sort of gave up when he accepted minor revisions in the second plan. The Florida Supreme Court could react similarly.

Second, we can't expect organizations like Common Cause, Fair Districts Florida and the League of Women Voters to continue to police this issue every 10 years, as the effort was extremely expensive.

It's the attorney general's duty to protect Florida's statutory and constitutional laws, but it's unrealistic to believe that someone in a political position will defend the will of Florida's voters when it's contrary to the interest of her own party.

While the Fair Districts amendments are making a difference, they have proven very costly to enforce.

Perhaps we need to consider a constitutional amendment for an independent redistricting commission in Florida.

By its nature, redistricting will always be political. Whether Republicans or Democrats control the process, the majority will always strive to preserve its power. It's a blatant conflict of interest for them to draw their own district lines.

An independent commission could ensure a level playing field. An ideal independent redistricting commission would balance the two major parties and require participation from non-major parties.

The composition of the commission could include one appointment each from the majority and minority leadership in both houses, with those four having to agree on a fifth person to serve as chair.

It's certainly worth considering.


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