Editorial: Court should draw congressional districts

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 09/04/2015

Treading lightly, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday ordered a trial judge to choose between congressional district maps drawn by state lawmakers while keeping the door open for one last try by the Legislature to finish the job. That door should be slammed shut. Legislators have failed three times to draw legal congressional districts, and any map drawn by the courts will have more public confidence than one drawn by legislators who have proven they cannot be trusted.

The latest redistricting opinion from the Supreme Court, already under fire from Republican legislators for providing specific guidance for how the districts should be drawn, attempts to strike a balance between the authority of the judicial and legislative branches. While it sends the issue back to Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, it essentially limits Lewis to options already considered by the Legislature. The Legislature is given one more chance to do the job, as long as it acts before Lewis finishes and meets an October deadline the justices previously set. That is an olive branch, but it is not a viable option and Lewis should proceed promptly.

Remember how redistricting got to this point. Florida voters approved the Fair Districts constitutional amendments in 2010 that set clear standards for drawing new districts and banned any intent to favor political parties or incumbents. Yet when legislators redrew the congressional districts in 2012, they clearly violated the will of the voters and the Florida Constitution. The courts heard about secret meetings with Republican consultants, maps drawn by consultants that were submitted under the names of others, special access to maps and documents for consultants and fake public testimony generated by the consultants. The Florida Supreme Court earlier this year invalidated eight of the 27 congressional districts and gave clear instructions on how to fix them, including keeping U.S. House District 14 within Hillsborough County. That district is now represented by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and includes portions of Hillsborough County and south St. Petersburg.

Even after all of that, the Legislature failed again last month to agree on a new congressional map. There is no reason for lawmakers to try again, and the practical road is for Lewis to decide where the lines should be drawn and submit his map to the Supreme Court. The circuit judge has some intriguing decisions to make that affect Tampa Bay.

For example, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, persuaded the Senate to adjust the lines so that Hillsborough County voters would be more certain to control two districts instead of one. His plan would move about 158,000 residents in south Hillsborough into a Hillsborough-centered district. In the base map originally approved by the House, those residents would be shifted to a district covering all of Manatee County and half of Sarasota County, areas now represented by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.

Either of these options are better for Hillsborough than the current map, which carves the county into four districts — none of which are based entirely in the county and one that puts thousands of south Hillsborough residents in a sprawling interior district represented by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee. The Senate map is preferable for Tampa Bay, and the House's explanations for rejecting it were not persuasive.

That's just one reason why the best option now is for the trial court to take over.

Moving lines anywhere creates a ripple effect, and the trial judge is the best objective person to decide which options best meet the constitutional requirements. The courts have gone to great lengths to defer to the Legislature and provide clear direction, and state lawmakers have failed at every turn.

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