Florida justices order new congressional districts for 2016

Lloyd Dunkelberger | Herald Tribune Politics | 07/09/2015

TALLAHASSEE — In a landmark ruling that could change the way congressional and legislative district lines are drawn in the nation’s third-largest state, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered state lawmakers to redraw boundaries for eight of Florida’s 27 congressional districts.

The ruling has the potential to shift some of the boundaries of two Southwest Florida congressman: U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, and Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee.

In a strongly worded 5-2 opinion, which went to great lengths to underscore the secret role that political consultants played in influencing the 2012 redistricting process, the Supreme Court justices upheld a trial court’s finding that the prior districts had violated the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments passed by voters in 2010 that ban partisan line drawing.

The ruling is significant because it is the first time the state’s highest court has offered its interpretation of the role that the Fair Districts amendments play in shaping boundaries for Florida’s congressional delegation as well as the 160 seats in the state Legislature.

In the majority opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which upheld the use of an independent commission in Arizona to draw political lines — as similar to the effort by Florida voters “to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative district lines to subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power.”

But while the court upheld Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ finding that the 2012 congressional map was “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents,” the justices said Lewis did not go far enough in ordering only two congressional districts be redrawn last year.

“The trial court failed to give the proper effect to its findings of unconstitutional intent, which mandate a more meaningful remedy commensurate with the constitutional violations it found,” Pariente wrote.

The court ordered the Legislature to redraw eight congressional districts, including four districts held by Democrats: U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa, Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.

Four districts held by Republicans also will have to be reconfigured: U.S. Reps. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, Carlos Curbelo of Miami and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But redrawing those districts will have an impact on adjacent districts, meaning many districts will be changed, although some more heavily than others. The current congressional delegation is controlled 17-10 by the Republicans.

Special session planned

The court has given lawmakers 100 days to complete the task, with a procedure where the House and Senate will redraw the congressional lines and the map will return to Lewis’ court for review.

The timetable means another special session is imminent for lawmakers, who left Tallahassee in mid-June after a 19-day special session to pass a new state budget.

After Lewis’ initial ruling, the Legislature met last August in a special session to redraw the congressional district lines, focusing on two districts, one held by Brown and the other held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Orlando. The new map, which was used in the 2014 congressional elections, also impacted seven other districts.

The Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause Florida and other advocates had argued the revised map did not go far enough and still violated the Fair Districts amendments. That coalition appealed Lewis’ decision to the Supreme Court.

The coalition had asked for the entire congressional map to be rejected, but the opinion limited the changes to the eight districts, while noting adjacent districts would be impacted.

Justice Charles Canady wrote a strongly worded dissent, supported by Justice Ricky Polston, accusing the majority of overstepping its role as an appellate court in deciding to order lawmakers to redraw eight congressional districts and offering specific guidelines.

“This decision causes serious damage to our constitutional structure,” Canady wrote. “The proper functioning of the judicial process is deformed and the separation of powers is breached in an unprecedented manner.”

Even with the opinion, redistricting will remain a complicated and controversial topic, with many lawmakers, political consultants and others still trying to parse the meaning of the 130-page opinion.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux said the party was reviewing the opinion and “its impact on Florida’s congressional districts.”

“However, one thing is crystal clear: Florida’s highest court has found Tallahassee Republicans guilty of unconstitutionally subverting Florida’s democracy,” Arceneaux said.

The most contentious issue remains Corrine Brown’s Congressional District 5, a serpentine configuration that includes many African-American communities running from Jacksonville through Gainesville south to Orlando.

The Supreme Court has ordered that north-south district to be changed to an east-west district that would likely run from Jacksonville west to the Tallahassee area. That reconfiguration would have a major impact on the seat now held by U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, as well as seats in the Orlando area.

Brown, who had opposed the Fair Districts amendments in 2010, sharply criticized the court decision, saying it “is seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.” She said it may violate the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which was created to protect minority voters.

In the Tampa Bay area, the court opinion said Kathy Castor’s District 14 must be redrawn so that it does not cross the bay into Pinellas County. That reconfigured district could move more Democratic voters, including African-Americans, into David Jolly’s District 13, which is already a very competitive district for the Republican incumbent.

A newly shaped District 14 could also cause changes in adjacent districts represented by Buchanan, the Longboat Key Republican who represents all of Sarasota County and most of Manatee, and Rooney, whose district includes much of Charlotte County and part of Manatee.

In South Florida, the court said districts held by Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo should not split the city of Homestead. The justices also said Diaz-Balart’s district should not split Hendry County.

The justices said lawmakers should consider changes for districts held by U.S. Reps. Frankel and Deutch but were less clear on the new configuration.

And the redistricting legal battles, which have been waged for three years, are far from over.

As lawmakers head toward another redistricting session in the next month or so, lawyers will begin arguing in a Tallahassee circuit courtroom in September over a similar Fair Districts challenge of the state Senate districts, which were also redrawn in 2012.

EARLIER: The Florida Supreme Court today ordered state lawmakers to redraw eight congressional districts, having found that a trial court decision that forced the Legislature to redraw two districts in 2014 did not go far enough to meet a constitutional amendment that bans partisan line drawing.

In the 5-2 decision, Justice Barbara Pariente upheld the trial court’s finding that the 2012 districts had been “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

“However, we reverse the trial court’s order approving the remedial redistricting plan because we conclude that, as a result of legal errors, the trial court failed to give the proper effect to its findings of unconstitutional intent, which mandate a more meaningful remedy commensurate with the constitutional violations it found,” Pariente wrote.

The opinion calls for the redrawing of eight congressional districts out of Florida’s 27 districts. It targets four districts held by Democrats: U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Kathy Castor of Tampa, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. And four districts held by Republicans: U.S. Reps. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, Carlos Curbelo of Kendall and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But redrawing those districts will have an impact on adjacent districts, meaning most districts will be impacted, although some more heavily than others.

The Florida Legislature met last August in a special session to redraw the congressional district lines, focusing on two districts, one held by Brown and the other held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Orlando. But the new map, which was approved by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, also impacted seven other districts.

The Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida argued the revised map did not go far enough and still violated the “Fair Districting” constitutional amendments that ban drawing district lines to benefit political parties. And the opponents appealed the decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

The current congressional delegation is controlled 17-10 by the Republicans.


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