Judge tosses Florida congressional map
By: Tarini Parti
July 10, 2014 09:57 PM EDT
A Florida judge ruled the state’s congressional map unconstitutional Thursday evening, a decision that could upend Republicans’ advantage in the state’s House delegation and leaves open the possibility of redrawing the districts in time for the 2014 elections.
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis blasted the GOP-controlled state Legislature for working with political consultants to make a “mockery” of Florida’s Fair Districts amendments — passed by voters in 2010 — that call for the decennial redistricting process to be conducted without taking into account partisan makeup or incumbent advantage.
“Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” Lewis writes in the opinion. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparency and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process, utilizing the access it gave them to the decision makers, but going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”
Despite his harsh words for the GOP, Lewis does not specify whether new district lines need to be drawn for the 2014 elections. The court will have to order further motions to determine the next steps, but it’s unclear when those motions will be delivered. The Legislature is also expected to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
“Everyone in Florida is holding their breaths,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and redistricting consultant who has worked in several states. “It’s possible it could affect 2014. The scenario would be that he would order a remedial map in place. The primaries would possibly be moved back. At the same time, there will be appeals. … It’s a lot that has to happen. For that reason, I think it might not happen in time for 2014, but it could.”
The state’s filing deadline passed in early May, and the primary is scheduled for Aug. 26.
The two districts that violated the Fair Districts amendment covering congressional redistricting were the 5th and 10th Districts in central Florida — represented by Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican Dan Webster, respectively — according to Lewis, who ordered that they be redrawn. But changing the lines for two districts would also change the lines for every district they touch.
Even though one of the districts that runs afoul of the state constitution is represented by a Democrat, Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the judge’s decision “a good day for Florida voters” in a statement. Depending on how the districts are redrawn, Democrats are still poised to pick up seats; Republicans currently hold a 17-10 advantage in the House delegation, despite an overall registration edge for Democrats.
“We applaud the courts for standing up for fairness by recognizing that the congressional map is partisan and unconstitutional. We will wait to see what the judge says about a new map, but it’s a good day for Florida voters,” he said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee did not immediately comment on the decision.
The judge’s ruling Thursday comes after a 12-day trial in May. Top state legislators and Republican consultants testified during the trial, as Democrats tried to show that political consultants were actively involved in helping the legislators draw the maps to give their party an advantage in several districts.
The plaintiffs in the case — the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and other Democratic-aligned groups — were largely funded by National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which was formed to fund the party’s efforts to combat Republicans who sought to solidify their historic win in 2010 through the redistricting process.
Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who also worked as the Democratic National Committee’s National Voter Protection counsel in 2008, said even if the the judge’s decision does not affect 2014, it will have a huge impact.
“He took the new constitutional amendment really seriously,” said Levitt. “I’d suspect that the 2014 election would go as planned, but there would certainly be changes for 2016 and beyond — and the beyond is important because it puts into place a new process for how districts will be drawn.”