The recent bombshell Florida Supreme Court ruling tossing out eight congressional districts as unconstitutional may be just the beginning of an unprecedented political shake-up, with many observers predicting a similar outcome in a lawsuit challenging state Senate districts.
Supporters of both lawsuits say the evidence that GOP lawmakers failed to follow constitutional guidelines mandating compact districts that do not favor political parties or incumbents is just as strong, or stronger, in the Senate case. The judge in the Senate case even wondered aloud last week about the similarities in how the congressional districts and Senate districts were created, noting both were drawn through the same process.
A successful challenge to the Senate districts could be even more far-reaching than the congressional ruling because more districts are involved, including the two covering Sarasota and Manatee counties.
If all 28 Senate districts being challenged are invalidated there could be a major realignment of Florida's political power structure that reverberates for years to come, all thanks to a pair of constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.
"I think it's quite amazing what's unfolding," Florida League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman said of the recent court ruling, calling it a "textbook civics lesson" on one branch of government reining in another.
Democrats are likely to gain a number of seats in the Senate if the redistricting case succeeds, bringing the balance of power more toward the center in a state Capitol dominated by Republicans for nearly two decades. Much remains unknown, though.
As a practical matter, the verdict on the congressional districts and the looming trial in the Senate case — set for Sept. 25 — are creating deep uncertainty heading into the 2016 election season.
Members of Congress are now unsure what their district boundaries will look like after state lawmakers finish redrawing districts during a special legislative session ordered by the Supreme Court. Some assume the reconfigured seats will diminish their reelection chances and are considering other options, including running for the U.S. Senate in one case.
Predicting what will happen with the state Senate seats is even more difficult because the courts have yet to rule. If the districts are thrown out and redrawn before the 2016 elections it would create a huge scramble. Redrawing the district lines could trigger elections in all 40 Senate seats, instead of the 20 scheduled for 2016.
One GOP senator who is not currently up for reelection in 2016 already has opened a campaign account anyway, telling supporters he just wants to be prepared.
While the congressional case dragged on for three years and went through two appeals before reaching a final verdict, the Senate lawsuit could move much more quickly.
The congressional case "took a long time because we were starting from scratch at that point," said attorney David King, who represents the League of Women Voters and others challenging the maps. "This run-through is going to be a lot quicker."
The high court ruling on the congressional districts set a "tremendous precedent" that should influence how judges view the Senate case, speeding the process along, King said.
"It lays it all out for the trial court," he said.
Lawyers on both sides expect an initial verdict in the Senate case before the 2016 elections, although the defense is seeking to delay the trial until after the congressional maps have been redone, a process that is expected to start in August and must wrap up by the end of September.
Political observers widely believe the Senate districts eventually will be redrawn.
"I'm hearing that," said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
Keith Fitzgerald, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Sarasota, predicts the state Senate case will be a "slam dunk" after the congressional ruling.
"Most people on the inside think the maps are going to go," said Republican political consultant Mac Stevenson. "It's just a question of time."
Much of the evidence in the Senate case comes from the same GOP political consultants whose emails and other records were used to establish partisan tampering in the congressional redistricting process.
"The testimony from the political operatives is they were much more interested in the Senate races than the congressional races," King said. "There's a wealth of information that establishes the political operatives were just as effective in influencing the Senate maps as they were in the congressional maps."
Defense lawyers have argued in court filings that such evidence may show partisan wrangling by "a small group of individuals" but there is nothing to indicate "their activities corrupted the intent of the Legislature as a whole."
Contemplating the likelihood that the Senate trial will establish unconstitutional intent to manipulate the districts for partisan gain, the judge in the case recently pointed to the ruling on the congressional districts and noted that the congressional maps and Senate maps were drawn through the same process.
"Both dishes came out of the same kitchen," Judge George Reynolds said Friday during a pre-trial case management conference.
George Meros, an attorney for the Florida House, tried to play down any similarities between the two cases Friday.
"Because there was invalidity found in a given line in a congressional map does not mean that there is an appropriate finding without proof of an invalidity of a line in the Senate map," Meros said. "That's just due process. They're different maps, different considerations."
Among the Senate districts where political operatives allegedly played a role in drawing boundary lines is the District 28 seat held by Detert.
Using "support and input from partisan Political Operatives" District 28 "was drawn in a less compact fashion as part of a plan to improve the Republican performance of the district to favor incumbent Senator Detert," the complaint alleges.
Detert disputes that allegation.
"My map of my seat was not submitted by any political consultants," she said, adding that it has very compact and logical borders that encompass all of Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County.
Detert's seat was not identified in the original complaint. It was added this year after lawyers for the plaintiffs gathered more evidence from GOP political operatives.
The District 26 seat held by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, also is targeted in the complaint. Critics allege it was designed to favor Republicans by ensuring that two "party insiders" who eventually became senators would not be in the same district.
As originally drawn, the district included Galvano's home and the home of Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley. A late amendment removed Sebring from District 26, sparing Galvano and Grimsley from facing each other in a primary.
Galvano's district also could be impacted if adjacent districts to the north are reconfigured, as expected.
Democratic-leaning areas of Manatee County — including sections of Bradenton and Palmetto — were cut out of District 26 and added to a Tampa-based district held by African-American Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner.
The Joyner district crosses Tampa Bay to pick up sections of Pinellas and Manatee counties that have high numbers of African-American voters.
The Supreme Court took issue with districts that cross water in such a manner, citing the practice as one reason that two Tampa Bay congressional seats were invalidated.
Joyner's district and an adjacent state Senate district mirror those unconstitutional congressional districts.
Supporters of the current districts say some of the unusual configurations are needed to pick up large numbers of minorities and ensure they are represented in Congress and the state Legislature.
The seats held by Galvano and Detert could become more competitive if they are forced to be redrawn, although the region leans Republican overall and shifting the district boundaries may not change the voting margins that much.
Democrats are more likely to pick up seats in South Florida and along the Interstate 4 corridor where they have higher numbers. But a great deal remains unknown.
"It's maximum uncertainty," Fitzgerald said. "Nobody really knows what's going to happen."
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