Judge invalidates Florida's congressional districts, appeal likely
In a ruling released late Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis blasted the Republican establishment that created Florida's congressional map, saying they "made a mockery" of transparency, allowed for "improper partisan intent" and he ordered that two of the state's 27 districts drawn in 2012 violate the Fair District standards.
In his 41-page ruling, the judge rejected challenges to districts in South Florida and that Tampa Bay but said that District 5, held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, and District 10, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, "will need to be redrawn, as will any other districts affected thereby."
The ruling is expected to be appealed by the Legislature, which said in a statement it is reviewing the ruling.
Lewis blasted the role of the political consultants saying "they made a mockery of the Legislature's transparent and open process of redistricting" while "going to great lengths to conceal from the public their paln and their participation in it.
"They were successful in their efforts to influence the redistricting process and the congressional plan under review here,'' he wrote. "And they might have successfully concealed their scheme and their actions from the public had it not been for the Plaintiffs determined efforts to uncover it in this case."
He concluded, however, that the circumstantial evidence proved that the political operatives "managed to find other avenues...to infiltrate and influence the Legislature." He drew no conclusions that legislative leaders were aware of the scheme, but he noted that Legislative leaders destroyed almost all of their emails and other documents related to redistricting, as did the political operatives.
"There is no legal duty on the part of the Legislature to preserve these records, but you have to wonder why they didn't,'' he wrote. "Litigation over their plans was 'a moral certainty' as their lawyers put it earlier in the case, and intent woudl be a key issue in any challenge."
Lewis tore apart the defense of the most controversial district in Florida's map -- District 5, a snake-shaped that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando district that was first drawn by a court 20 years ago and which Brown has represented since then. Brown was so intent on leaving the district unchanged, that she challenged the constitutionality of Florida Fair District law but lost.
Lewis also concluded that the trail of emails and secret documents, which GOP operatives fought to keep out of the record, proved that "Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process.
"They accomplished this by writing scripts for and organizing groups of people to attend the public hearings to advocate for adoption of certain components or characteristics in the maps, and by submitting maps and partial maps through the public process, all with the intention of obtaining enacted maps for the State House and SEnate and for Congress that would favor the Republican Party."
He concluded, however, that the legislative staff involved in drawing the maps were not part of this scheme and said that staffers Alex Kelly, John Guthrie and Jason Poreda were "straightforward, frank and credible."
Lewis commended District 10 for following the requirement that districts be compact but he noted that an appendage added late in the process was "drawn to benefit the Republican Party and the incumbent." He rejected claims by lawyers for the Legislature that a neighboring district was needed to be created to elected Hispanics and the appendage, which moved 80,000 voting age population out of Webster's district and another 71,000 into it, was needed to enable the partisan advantage.
"The appendage benefited the incumbent Representative Webster by returning to District 10 territory that was part of his benchmark District 8 and improved the Republican performan of District 10 in two out of three elections relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court,'' Lewis wrote.
Lewis also said the meetings held between legislators, political operatives and their staff involving Washington D.C. redistricting expert Ben Ginsberg raised some issues "that are troubling."
He noted that while the political consultants could have submitted maps, and showed intense interest in designing the maps, no on in the Legislature raised questions about why they didn't. "I would think that the staff and legislative leaders would find it extremely strange, that they might even ask why not. But they didn't,'' he wrote.
Lewis also raised questions about the decision by House and Seante leaders to ignore the potential political performance of most districts they drew and why they didn't concern themselves with the authors of publicly-submitted maps.
"Turning a blind eye to the probability of improper intent in these maps is not the same as neutrality,'' he wrote.