For advocates of creating an independent panel to draw Florida's congressional and legislative district lines, a Leon County judge provided an exclamation point this past week.
In a ruling issued Wednesday, Circuit Judge George Reynolds rejected a map of state Senate districts from the chamber's redistricting chairman in favor of one submitted by a coalition of voters groups. That coalition had gone to court to challenge the previous Senate map, which the chamber's leaders later conceded was unlikely to be found constitutional.
But Reynolds concluded in his ruling that the replacement map from Republican Sen. Bill Galvano of Bradenton was drawn to favor his party's candidates. "It is difficult to infer anything other than impermissible partisan intent in the selection," the judge wrote.
Redistricting is the process, normally just once every 10 years, of reconfiguring congressional and legislative districts to adjust for population shifts. In 2010, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution to prohibit legislators from drawing districts to favor parties and incumbents — the "impermissible partisan intent" to which Reynolds referred.
The amendments were supposed to end the longstanding practice by ruling parties in the Legislature —Democrats, then Republicans — of creating as many voter-friendly districts for their candidates as possible. It's called gerrymandering.
But Florida courts concluded the GOP-led Legislature defied the amendments in the Senate and congressional maps it approved in 2012. And when legislators reconvened in special sessions to approve constitutionally compliant maps, they failed — repeatedly — and wound up squandering millions of taxpayer dollars.
The Senate map Reynolds chose from the voters coalition gives a small advantage to Democratic-leaning over Republican-leaning districts, 21-19. That could lead to significant political shift in the Senate in this year's elections. Currently, Senate Republicans outnumber Democrats 26-14. But some rebalancing of those numbers makes sense, considering registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Florida by almost 400,000.
Lawyers for the Legislature tried to discredit the coalition's map because it was drafted by a Democratic political consultant. But Reynolds pointed out that the coalition's map split fewer cities than Galvano's, added to the number of seats likely to elect a Hispanic senator and had lower population differences between districts.
And Reynolds highlighted the Senate redistricting chairman's inherent conflicts.
Galvano also served as the Republican leader in his chamber and head of the committee that raises money for his party's Senate candidates, and he's a future Senate president if Republicans maintain their majority. "These roles required Sen. Galvano to consider partisanship and benefiting Republican incumbents to effectively perform his duties …" the judge wrote.
As this editorial went to press, a spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner said he hadn't decided whether his chamber would appeal Reynolds' ruling. We urge him not to waste any more time and public money on this losing battle.
Reynolds' ruling came less than a month after the Florida Supreme Court upheld another lower court ruling rejecting the Legislature's latest congressional map in favor of one submitted by the same voters coalition. The results in both cases show, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was a mistake to trust legislators to draw districts without parties or candidates in mind.
If legislative leaders hope to redeem themselves for the chaos they've created, they'll embrace proposals to hand over responsibility for redistricting to an independent commission. Other states, some led by Republicans and others led by Democrats, have successfully adopted this approach.
It shouldn't take years of court battles, multiple legislative sessions and millions of dollars to give Florida voters the fair districts they've demanded.