When lawmakers return to Tallahassee on Monday, they'll do more than redraw congressional districts found unconstitutional last month by the Florida Supreme Court.
They'll likely reshape the political landscape of Florida — not to mention Leon County — during an unprecedented 12-day special session that could reverberate far beyond the state line and the corridors of power in Washington.
Lawmakers were facing backlash against their latest redistricting plan even before they released their starting-point map earlier this week. Common Cause Florida and the League of Women Voters of Florida, who sued over the Legislature's 2012 redistricting plan, complained that the base map, drawn by state staff and attorneys, was done behind closed doors.
And it's only intensified since the map was released, showing Leon County, now located entirely in the 2nd Congressional District, divided into two districts — a newly reconfigured and more conservative-leaning 2nd District, anchored in the west by Bay County, and a redrawn 5th District, anchored in the east by Jacksonville.
In Leon County, the proposal to split the county has prompted vocal criticism from local Democrats and Republicans alike, who say it will weaken Tallahassee's representation in Congress.
"It's just fundamentally flawed," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and one of seven members of the Senate's Committee on Reapportionment. "And it is unacceptable to treat this part of Florida in this manner. Forget party affiliation — that's not the issue here. The issue is treating this part of Florida right."
Lawmakers aren't allowed to factor partisan politics in their new map — they're going into special session this week because the Supreme Court found they took part in partisan gerrymandering favoring the GOP when they drew the map in 2012. But the proposed change for the 2nd District would make it nearly impossible for U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, to hold onto her seat.
Graham may be forced to choose between running for re-election in a more right-leaning district, challenging fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown for the District 5 seat or perhaps seeking statewide office in either 2016 or 2018.
Redistricting will transform districts once considered solidly Democratic or Republican, forcing incumbents like Graham into uncharted waters and intensifying a political domino effect that began after the high court's ruling.
Republican Congressman David Jolly is jettisoning his seat in the 19th District, which is expected to become more Democratic-leaning, in favor of a bid for the U.S. Senate. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned Democrat who lost last year to Gov. Rick Scott, now is eyeing the seat as fertile ground for a comeback.
"The irony of redistricting is that neither party is safe from the consequences of creating more competitive districts," said Kevin Wagner, associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. "So while the new districts are likely to open more seats to competition, some of the safe seats will no longer be so safe for both parties. This is an opportunity for Charlie Crist, but it does likely mean a tougher road for Gwen Graham."
The special session is the result of a July 9 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which found the Republican-led Legislature violated the Fair Districts constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010 barring the manipulation of district boundaries to one party's advantage.
Jacksonville to Orlando district remade
The high-court ruling grew out of litigation brought by plaintiffs who contended among other things that the 5th District, which follows an irregularly shaped path from Jacksonville to Orlando, was over-packed with Democrat-leaning black voters, diluting their numbers in surrounding districts.
The plaintiffs argued District 5 was a linchpin to the Legislature's gerrymandering and suggested a new east-west configuration, with one proposed map running from Jacksonville into Tallahassee and splitting Leon County in half. The Supreme Court ordered the district to be redrawn east-west, saying lawmakers couldn't prove a north-south path was needed to allow black voters to pick a candidate of their choice.
But the ruling has already prompted a federal legal challenge by Rep. Brown, who said last week the proposed east-west alignment violates the Voting Rights Act. She argued that after emancipation and the Civil War, freed slaves and other African Americans settled along the St. Johns River, which runs from Jacksonville to north of Orlando, and continued living there because of historical redlining.
After a court hearing last month, state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and chairman of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment, noted that lawmakers last year examined the east-west configuration and found it less constitutionally compliant than the north-south tract they eventually approved.
"Having said that, the court has spoken, and we're going to look very carefully at what recommendations were made," Galvano said. "And so there is a high likelihood that it will end up being east-west."
Over the course of the special session, lawmakers will be debating the proposed base map and offering amendments to change it. It's possible the proposed new boundaries of the 2nd and 5th districts will change and Leon County will remain wholly in one district.
The Fair Districts amendment calls for lawmakers to follow existing political and geographical boundaries — like the Leon County line — when drawing congressional boundaries. But the amendment says lawmakers shall do so only "where feasible."
"Clearly, this means the Legislature should try to keep Leon County in one district," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political-science professor at Florida State University. "But I imagine a case could be made that in this instance it is not practical. Still, this might place the whole new districting configuration in jeopardy. It is possible the Legislature might want to play it safe."
'Big win for redistricting reformers'
New congressional lines are expected to level the playing field among Democrats and Republicans, turning one of the most pro-GOP redistricting plans in the country into a fairer one, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
"The Legislature is constrained because if they take overtly political actions here in drawing the new districts, the Florida Supreme Court has already said it won't tolerate that," he said. "So if there's even a whiff that they're using redistricting for partisan gain, the Supreme Court will reject the map they're proposing and could draw their own plan. And the Legislature will not want that. So they have to walk a very fine line here."
Whatever map lawmakers come up with, the Supreme Court ruling will echo across the country. McDonald pointed out the Florida ruling was the first time in American history a court struck down a redistricting plan and ordered a new one based on partisan gerrymandering.
McDonald said it was a "big win" for redistricting reformers who want to curb partisan gerrymandering. And he said it provides a way forward for state courts and possibly federal courts to find redistricting plans in other states unconstitutional.
"What's going to happen now is the reformers who are making efforts in other states are going to include the language in Florida into their proposals," he said. "So we may see other states adopt similar constitutional prohibitions on gerrymandering in the future."
Special session dates
The second special session of 2015 will begin 3 p.m. Monday and end at noon Friday, Aug. 21.
The Legislature will convene to amend Congressional Districts 5, 13, 14, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27 consistent with the Florida Supreme Court ruling and make conforming changes to other districts.
Changes to Florida's congressional districts
Legislature staff, working with their attorneys, drew a new base map for Florida's congressional districts following direction from the Florida Supreme Court. Justices found eight of Florida's 27 districts unconstitutional; the base map changes 22 of the districts in all. Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli explained the changes in a joint memo last week:
•We used the alternative District 5 that the ... plaintiffs proposed during the remedial redistricting hearing in August 2014, and which the Florida Supreme Court held up as an exemplar configuration, to comply with the specific instruction to use an east-west configuration.
•Districts 13 and 14 were redrawn consistent with the court's direction to avoid crossing Tampa Bay and are now more compact and split fewer cities and counties.
•The redrawn versions of Districts 21 and 22 are also more compact and result in one fewer district crossing the Palm Beach-Broward County line.
•Following the Supreme Court's directive to redraw District 25 in a manner that keeps Hendry County whole, the base map has all of Hendry County in District 25 and preserves minority voting strength in both it and neighboring District 20.
•Districts 26 and 27, which the Court invalidated because they split the City of Homestead, have been redrawn to keep Homestead whole in District 26.