State Supreme Court strikes down congressional districts

Brandon Larrabee | The News Service of Florida | 07/10/2015

TALLAHASSEE –A bitterly divided Florida Supreme Court threw out eight congressional districts Thursday in a long-awaited ruling, ordering the Legislature to redraw the lines within the next 100 days.

The 5-2 decision, which featured a split between the court's more-liberal majority and its conservative minority, will likely force lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for their third session of the year. It also marked the second time that justices had tossed out a map drawn by the Republican-dominated Legislature as part of the 2012 redistricting process.

In an opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente, the majority found that Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis was correct to find that the congressional map approved as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process was corrupted by the efforts of Republican political consultants — violating an anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" constitutional amendment voters approved in 2010.

But Pariente argued that Lewis was essentially too timid in his ruling and that he deferred to lawmakers too much when deciding which districts should and shouldn't be thrown out and how drastic any changes should be.

"To do so is to offer a presumption of constitutionality to decisions that have been found to have been influenced by unconstitutional considerations," Pariente said. "The existence of unconstitutional partisan intent is contrary to the very purpose of the Fair Districts Amendment and to this court's pronouncements regarding the state constitutional prohibition on partisan political gerrymandering."

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices James E.C. Perry and Peggy Quince joined Pariente's decision. Justice R. Fred Lewis agreed with the outcome of the case, but didn't sign onto the reasoning in the ruling.

Last year, Terry Lewis invalidated two districts, which lawmakers redrew with limited impact on other congressional seats. Those districts are represented by Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican Daniel Webster. But Thursday's opinion not only once again struck down Brown's Congressional District 5, it also ordered lawmakers to redraw the borders for seven other seats. The cascading changes could affect many of the state's 27 congressional districts.

"Today, the Florida Supreme Court took the Florida Legislature to the woodshed," said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which led the legal fight against the districts. "Their egregious behavior using partisan political operatives in the redistricting process was appropriately reprimanded."

The ruling also laid bare the tension in the court surrounding the heavily litigated redistricting process. In a cutting dissent, Justice Charles Canady blasted the majority for usurping lawmakers' traditional role in drawing districts.

"This decision causes serious damage to our constitutional structure," Canady, a former lawmaker, wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Ricky Polston. "The proper functioning of the judicial process is deformed and the separation of powers is breached in an unprecedented manner. Since 2012, this court's decisions concerning the redistricting process have been characterized by a repeated rewriting of the rules."

That in turn drew unusually sharp rejoinders from Pariente, who called Canady's criticisms "extravagant" and suggested he wanted the court to abdicate its responsibility.

"Far from upending the law, then, our legal analysis today adheres to our recent redistricting precedents," she wrote. "The dissent, to the contrary, continues its refusal to acknowledge the import of the Fair Districts Amendment."

One of the most controversial parts of the ruling could be its requirement that the Legislature redraw Brown's district, which winds through several counties as it runs from Jacksonville to Orlando.

Many Democrats have long complained that the district includes far more black voters than is necessary to give those voters the opportunity to elect their preferred candidate. The effect is to make other districts in Northeast and Central Florida more Republican than they otherwise would be.

But the decision, which will likely result in a district running from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, could cause problems for freshman Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham by removing many of the voters who helped Graham win her 2014 race in a swing district that includes the Tallahassee and Panama City areas.

And Brown, who has been a consistent critic of the Fair Districts effort, blasted the ruling.

"The decision by the Florida state Supreme Court is seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters," Brown said in a lengthy statement issued by her office. " ... As a people, African Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backwards."

Justices also ordered lawmakers to redraw Districts 13 and 14 "to avoid crossing Tampa Bay." That could endanger Republican Congressman David Jolly, whose district would likely absorb more Democratic parts of Pinellas County as Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor's district would be pushed out of the county.

The court also found fault with the districts of South Florida Democrats Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel and Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on a variety of grounds.

Republican legislative leaders were largely silent on the maps. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said through spokespersons that they were reviewing the ruling.

But Democrats could barely conceal their delight at the result, coming on the heels of a special budget session sparked by a bitter fight within the GOP over how to handle health-care spending.

"This is the second time in two months that the Florida GOP will have to return to Tallahassee to clean up an unconstitutional mess of their own creation," said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux. "I hope Republicans put aside their petty self-interest and — for once —respect the voice of Florida's voters."

Cotterell's quick take

It's unusual to see Florida Supreme Court justices take shots at each other like this, but today's Florida ruling on congressional districting has a nice bit of sniping.

The majority sharply notes the harsh words of the dissenters, which included a "barrage of epithets" including such terms as "fallacious, fabricated, extreme distortion, revolutionary deformation, teeming with judicial overreaching, creatively cobbled, aggressive invasion, aberrant decision and unprecedented incursions."

Justice Barbara Pariente writes, "of course, we categorically reject the dissent's many derisive criticisms" — and then adds in a footnote, "Perhaps we should take solace in not being accused of 'jiggery-pokery.'"

That, of course, was Justice Antonin Sacalia's term in dissenting on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last month on Obamacare.

Maybe it's good that all the justices are taking some time off now.

— Bill Cotterell, Democrat correspondent


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