Contempt of court in Tallahassee

Editorial Board | Sun Sentinel | 08/22/2015

The Florida Legislature failed citizens again Friday when senators stormed out of a conference committee called to reconcile differing versions of a new political map for congressional districts, leading representatives to call it quits and adjourn the session.

It now appears the task of drawing the map will fall to the Florida Supreme Court, which sent the previous map back for a legislative re-do because it violated a constitutional prohibition against drawing lines to favor certain politicians or political parties.

While the legislature's failure may not meet the legal standards for contempt of court, it certainly meets the standard in the court of public opinion.

What a mess.

Yet given the chaos that reigns in Tallahassee, perhaps it's best for the state's high court to create a map that will keep communities whole, as much as possible, instead of the gerrymandered districts that now snake their way through parts of the state.

Friday's collapse looked a lot like what happened in May, when the House adjourned three days early, upset that the Senate refused to budge on a plan to accept federal Medicaid funds via a private-option insurance plan for poor people. The feuding chambers returned for a 19-day special session in June — at an estimated cost of $75,000 per day — to pass a state budget without the federal money.

And given Friday's meltdown, it's hard to expect something better when lawmakers meet again Oct. 19, for another costly special session to redraw political lines for Senate seats.

It's worth noting that a similar dysfunction is playing out in Virginia, where this week's special session to redraw congressional districts also melted down, leaving a court to draw the lines. But in Virginia, the power play is between Democrats and Republicans. In Florida, the GOP holds all the cards, yet still cannot get the job done.

As a starting point, the Florida Supreme Court gave lawmakers a "base map" for drawing compact congressional districts. The House mostly accepted the proposal, with changes made to keep Sunrise and Riviera Beach from being split three ways, and to keep Groveland and Auburndale in Central Florida whole. The Senate, though, wanted its version to prevail, a map that would make a divided eastern Hillsborough County whole and Sarasota County a single district.

Rep. Jose Oliva, the Miami Lakes Republican who chaired the House redistricting committee, argued that the Senate's map wouldn't pass judicial review because it would harm Orange and Lake counties. Privately, some House members also grumbled that the change might help Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who had championed the Senate's Medicaid plan and might want to run for Congress.

In Friday's conference committee meeting, the House refused to budge, so the Senate delegation got up and left. The House then refused a proposal to extend the session until Tuesday, the court-imposed deadline for the new map. Instead, the House abruptly adjourned. So then, too, did the Senate.

The likely next step will be for Gov. Rick Scott, who's been missing in action during the session, and Attorney General Pam Bondi to submit their own proposed maps to the court, since someone has to speak for the people. The House and Senate will likely submit their versions, too.

You can expect more cries of "judicial activism," which began the minute the justices returned the map for revision. But given all we now know about the back-room shenanigans that occurred during the making of this map, the justices were right to call foul and demand a do-over.

Given Florida's sprawl, it's not easy to draw political boundaries in a way that keeps communities whole and respects case law meant to ensure minorities can get elected. Florida has 67 counties and only 27 members of Congress, so a little slicing and dicing is needed to create districts that embrace the requisite number of voters.

However, today's map-makers have tools so precise that they can almost draw lines that split a Republican husband from a Democratic wife. The problem with such precision is that it has been used to create "safe" districts for Republicans and Democrats. As a result, there's no incentive for politicians to find common ground and solve problems. Indeed, if a politician veers toward the middle, he or she is likely to get a primary challenge from someone more liberal or more conservative.

This dynamic is one of the main reasons why our nation is so politically divided today. Addressing these stacked districts is why Florida voters passed the Fair Districts Amendment in 2010.

So let the high court decide. More than our elected representatives these days, the justices of Florida's Supreme Court are putting citizens first, not themselves.

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