Editorial: Supreme Court approves fairer congressional districts

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 12/02/2015

Floridians finally should be able to cast ballots next year in congressional districts that meet the constitutional amendments voters approved five years ago to eliminate the partisan rigging of the boundary lines. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new districts Wednesday, and they are an improvement over the old ones for Tampa Bay and for the state. It took three failed attempts by the Legislature, four years of lawsuits and eight state Supreme Court opinions on redistricting — but it should be worth the wait.

The new map of 27 congressional districts should produce more competitive districts and a more balanced delegation that better reflects the state's divided electorate. The districts are generally more compact and more successful in keeping counties and cities whole, and they should not compromise the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. Expect some incumbents to keep complaining and more legal challenges in federal court, but the safe bet is that these districts will hold up until the lines are redrawn again to reflect population changes defined by the 2020 census.

In Tampa Bay, the benefits of the new map are clear. The redrawn District 14 now represented by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is contained in Hillsborough County and includes both downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida. That takes on particular importance with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's downtown redevelopment plan that includes moving the USF medical school there and reinforces the need for mass transit that would require federal dollars. Parts of south St. Petersburg that include predominantly minority neighborhoods and Democratic voters who were in Castor's old district will move to District 13, which is now occupied by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. Now all of St. Petersburg and generally all of Pinellas south of Dunedin will be in one district for the first time in more than a dozen years. The entire city could be represented by a Democrat for the first time in more than 60 years after the 2016 election, as Jolly runs for the U.S. Senate and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist runs for the House seat as a Democrat.

The new congressional map is more of a mixed bag for Hillsborough, which is carved into four districts and likely will have only one member of Congress calling the county home. The compact District 14 represented by Castor is a plus. Another plus is that more than 100,000 residents in southern Hillsborough communities such as Sun City Center and Riverview will 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. A commendable effort by state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, to create a congressional district based in eastern Hillsborough was approved by the Senate but rejected by the courts.

There will be plenty of protests. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, is expected to file a federal lawsuit because the sprawling minority district that she was first elected to represent in 1992 has been changed. Instead of running hundreds of miles from the Jacksonville area to the Orlando area, a more sensible minority district will run from Jacksonville west along the Georgia border to the Tallahassee area. The Central Florida district held by Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, has been carved into other districts, and South Florida incumbent Democrats are paired against each other in two redrawn districts. But those changes were anticipated and are no reason to fault the work of the courts.

The new congressional districts are a laudable effort to uphold the Florida Constitution and the will of the voters who approved the Fair Districts Amendments in 2010. Those amendments required the Legislature to draw new congressional and legislative districts without the intent to favor political parties or incumbents, and lawmakers failed miserably. The courts found lawmakers allowed Republican consultants and operatives to manipulate the process, benefit from private meetings with top lawmakers, receive special access to redistricting documents and submit maps under the names of others. Even when the Supreme Court gave the Legislature a third try this summer, the process was not transparent and lawmakers failed to agree on a congressional map.

Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in the 5-2 opinion that the court's goal always has been to comply with the Fair Districts Amendments, and she rejected complaints that the Supreme Court was pitted against the Legislature. She appropriately rebutted arguments by Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, who dissented.

She put the responsibility for this yearslong failure to create constitutional districts squarely where it belongs: in the state Capitol across the street from the Supreme Court.

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