Editorial: Legislature's last chance to get congressional districts right

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 08/07/2015

The third time had better be the charm for the Florida Legislature this week as it opens a two-week special session to redraw congressional districts. The redistricting assignment should be taken over by the courts if lawmakers again fail to draw districts that meet constitutional requirements that the lines be drawn without favoring political parties or incumbents. If legislators finally comply with the Fair Districts amendments voters approved five years ago, the result should be more competitive districts and a more balanced congressional delegation that more closely reflects the divided electorate.

The Florida Supreme Court gave lawmakers clear direction when it ruled eight of the 27 congressional districts have to be redrawn and the initial draft of a new map drawn by legislative staff appears to be a good-faith effort at following those unambiguous demands. In Tampa Bay, the redrawn District 14 now represented by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is contained in Hillsborough County and no longer includes parts of south Pinellas County that feature predominantly minority neighborhoods. In North Florida, a redrawn minority access district runs from Jacksonville west to the Tallahassee area instead of south to Orlando. In South Florida, the districts are generally more compact and more successful at keeping counties and cities whole. Those are all positive steps.

The revised map would be a substantial improvement for Tampa Bay. In Hillsborough, Castor's district would be more compact and include the University of South Florida and Republican-leaning New Tampa, which are in the city limits and would benefit USF as its medical school looks to move downtown. In Pinellas, District 13, now represented by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, would generally cover all of the county south of Dunedin. In fast-growing southern Hillsborough, more than 100,000 residents in communities such as Sun City Center and Riverview would shift from a sprawling interior district represented by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, to a more compact district covering Manatee County and part of Sarasota County represented by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. The overall result would keep communities with more common interests together.

Predictably, congressional incumbents already are complaining. Buchanan does not want to lose half of Sarasota County that is in his current district. Two South Florida incumbent Democrats would find themselves in the same district. In Jacksonville, Rep. Corrine Brown already has joined a lawsuit to preserve the existing minority access district she has represented since it was created in 1992. But that is the beauty of the Fair Districts amendments: The districts are required to be drawn without regard to incumbents or political parties.

The Florida Supreme Court opinion plainly describes how the Legislature circumvented those constitutional requirements when it first drew the congressional districts in 2012. Under a facade of openness, Republican consultants and operatives manipulated the process and benefited from private meetings with top lawmakers. They had special access to redistricting documents, and they conspired to submit proposed maps under the names of others, including a college student who had no clue. No wonder the courts had to force legislators to testify and consultants to cough up documents. They circumvented the state Constitution and the will of the voters, and the result was illegally drawn districts that could not stand up in court.

Given such cynical indifference to the rule of law, the justices were right to provide clear instruction to legislators about maintaining records and redrawing the congressional districts. Now they have one more chance to follow the Constitution and do it right

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