Editorial: Time for courts to take over redistricting

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 08/22/2015

The Florida Legislature is an embarrassment to this state and its residents. The House prefers political power plays and goes home without finishing the state's business. The Senate admits it violates the Florida Constitution. And they both bash the courts, which are the last hope for Floridians who want their clear wishes carried out and congressional and legislative districts to be fairly drawn.

The two-week special legislative session to redraw congressional districts abruptly ended Friday without a new map, as House and Senate Republicans blamed each other. The House was in a snit and refused to work past lunch, voting 99-3 not to stay until dinner. That is the take-it-or-leave-it approach it used in the spring when it violated the state Constitution and unilaterally adjourned three days early. The Senate had the audacity to propose reasonable changes this week to a congressional map drawn by legislative staff, but the House would not budge much or continue to negotiate.

The real casualties of this debacle are the voters, particularly in Hillsborough County. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, had persuaded the Senate to adjust congressional districts so that Hillsborough voters would be virtually guaranteed of having two members of Congress from the county instead of one. On the surface, at least, the changes looked defensible and created more rational districts in Tampa Bay. House Republicans refused to agree, caring more about keeping Auburndale and Groveland whole — districts for two Republican incumbents — than enabling east Hillsborough voters to be represented by one of their own.

Of course, the Senate is not standing on high moral ground. It's clearer than ever why the Senate has conceded it violated the 2010 Fair Districts amendments when it drew new Senate districts in 2012. The constitutional amendments require congressional and legislative districts to be drawn without the intent to favor incumbents or political parties. Yet new court documents filed this week indicate the Senate brazenly violated the intent of the constitutional amendments in redrawing its districts as the entire Legislature did when redrawing the congressional lines.

The depositions and email documents show another clandestine effort by the same Republican operatives to draw Senate district maps and manufacture fake public testimony, Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported. They got draft Senate maps more than a month before the senators, and —- surprise, surprise — the final Senate map wound up with a significant number of districts identical to those drawn by the political hacks. No wonder the Senate admitted guilt and scrambled to keep some control over redrawing the districts in an October special session rather than lose in court and have a judge direct lawmakers on how to proceed.

Good luck with that. As Friday's train wreck in Tallahassee shows, this Legislature is incapable of governing in general and of drawing legal districts in particular.

Republicans whine about the courts, but the lawmakers are the ones who failed voters and willfully violated the Florida Constitution. The courts should immediately take full control of redrawing the congressional districts, and they should be prepared to do the same with the state Senate districts.

There is a silver lining to this fiasco. Voters are again learning that elections have consequences and that the Legislature is dysfunctional. They also have more evidence that lawmakers cannot be trusted with redrawing congressional and legislative districts, a job that should go to an independent redistricting commission. Creating a commission would require another constitutional amendment, and don't expect the Legislature to have an epiphany and put one on the ballot. That will require another public uprising and another petition drive, just like the 2010 Fair Districts amendments that lawmakers have so arrogantly ignored.


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