Judge rejects Legislature's redistricting map, recommends plaintiffs' plan
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Friday rejected the Florida Legislature's third attempt at redrawing its congressional districts and recommended a map proposed by the challengers to the Florida Supreme Court for its final review.
Lewis adopted the bulk of the map approved by lawmakers in the northern and central portions of the state but specifically rejected the proposed boundaries for seven districts, including District 26 in Miami-Dade, now held by Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, potentially unseating at least three incumbents congressional candidates and opening the door for others. Download Romo.Order Recommending Adoption of Remedial Map
The challengers, a coalition of League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals, agreed with Legislature's configuration of 20 of the 27 districts proposed in a staff-drawn base map but asked the court to adopt their changes to the remaining districts. Lewis agreed.
"The Legislature has thus not met its burden of justifying the proposed versions of Districts 20 through 27,'' he wrote in a 19-page ruling. He said that a map drawn by the challengers "best complies with the directions" set out by the Florida Supreme Court in July and "I therefore recommend its adoption."
The recommendation will next go to the Florida Supreme Court will must review the maps, including the court testimony and record, and decide what will be the final boundaries for the 2016 election cycle.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who had wanted the court to accept the House's map, responded that the plaintiff's map was "essentially the House map."
He noted that the court "found that the Legislature took appropriate steps to guard against improper partisan intent, and that there was no evidence that Legislative staff had any intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent."
Redistricting Committee chairman Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, raised questions about the court's decision saying in a Tweet that the court "declares different standard of intent for the legislature than they do for themselves. Justice depends on consistent standards."
David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, called the decision "another great victory for the people of Florida and for restoration of representative democracy." He said the result was the "the product of a tireless commitment to rid our state of partisan gerrymandering."
Lawmakers were handed an unprecedented set of directives in July when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the congressional boundaries used in the 2012 and 2014 elections were invalid because lawmakers had allowed improper interference by political operatives and created congressional districts that illegally favored incumbents and political parties. The court gave them specific guidelines for redrawing eight districts and ordered Lewis to review their work and make a recommendation by Oct. 17.
When lawmakers tried and failed to resolve their differences in an August special session, the court threw it back to Lewis, who had been supervising the case that has cost taxpayers more than $8 million for the last 3-1/2 years. He conducted a three-day hearing.
In its July 9 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to keep the City of Homestead whole and the Legislature’s solution was to create a district that performed better for Republicans by removing the black communities of Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates and West Perrine into the neighboring District 27, now held by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The House and Senate argued that only way to avoid reducing the ability of Hispanics from electing their own candidate is to leave the district more Republican-leaning as they have proposed. Their argument: the district is leaning Democratic and Democrat's won't elect an Hispanic.
But Lewis rejected that argument, noting that "Hispanics have consistently elected the candidate of their choice" in the region and rejected Florida International University Professor Dario Moreno's testimony that the district as proposed by the challengers will "lock out" Hispanic voters.
"Professor Moreno, who no doubt has a good bit of knowledge and expertise about elections in South Florida, testified to his concerns that the CP-1 configuration would diminish the ability of Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice,'' he wrote. "His testimony was long on pure opinion based on experience and short on systematic, scientific analysis of accepted statistical data."
Lewis also chastised lawmakers for trying only one configuration of Districts 26 and 27 and rejected the suggestion by plaintiffs when they pointed out the flaws. He noted that lawmakers did not want to respond to the criticism, for fear of being accused of political favoritism.
"I understand the dilemma faced by the Legislature in that situation,'' Lewis wrote. "If it has drawn the map without regard to political performance, then it would be improper for it to 'correct' the political effect of the map in certain districts when someone complains.
"But if a citizen cannot point out what appears to them to be political gerrymandering in certain districts, without the Legislature shutting down any further consideration of those districts...it is difficult to see how public participation in the process could ever effectively occur.'
The ruling not only will mean new boundaries for Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo, it shuffles the landscape for legislators in the Central and Northern parts of the state. The map as recommended by Lewis leaves three sitting members of Congress in a precarious re-election situation and it resolves a dispute between the House and Senate over how to handle Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.
Lewis adopted the configuration initially drawn by staff and favored by the House in which everyone in Eastern Hillsborough County south of the Alafia River would change their current members of Congress. Instead of being split between Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor and Okeechobee Republican Tom Rooney, the area would be represented by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican.
In Sarasota County, half of the county would lose Buchanan as their member of Congress. Northern Sarasota County would remain in Buchanan’s 16th District. But areas of southern Sarasota County, including Venice and North Port would shift into the newly configured 17th Congressional District held by Rooney.
The plan also rejects the proposal to keep all of Sarasota in one county and puts most of eastern Hillsborough into the 15th Congressional District, represented now by Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross.
In Tampa Bay, the map merges most of Pinellas County into Congressional District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist's home. Crist is expected to announce soon that he is running for Congress.
And the district now held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, will become significantly more Democratic. Jolly has announced he will not seek re-election but will run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Democrat from Tallahassee, will also see her current District 2 become significant more Republican while her home base will become part of the newly-drawn minority majority District 5, currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
In Central Florida, the changes will be the most significant, as the court ordered the legislature to move the minority majority district out of the region and into North Florida. That configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.
The new configuration approved by Lewis dismantles the current District 10 held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, and creates a Hispanic, Democrat-dominated seat that Webster acknowledges he could not win in. Webster, however, has said he will challenge the configuration and is campaigning to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The recommended map also keeps Hendry County whole to and keeps District 20 an African-American majority-minority district that stretches into Miramar, now held by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. It also differs from the Legislature's maps by not splitting six cities in Districts 20 and 21, held by U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel.
Lewis chastised the Legislature for attempting only one configuration of Districts 26 and 27 to comply with the requirement to keep Homestead whole.
"The map drawers and their bosses seemed uninterested in exploring other possible configurations to see if these districts could be drawn more compact and reduce county and city splits,'' he wrote. "I would think the Legislature would have anticipated questions about improving tier two compliance and have been prepared to respond to such questions by saying they had explored several possibilities..."
Ros-Lehtinen responded to the approved map in a statement: "Lines or no lines, I work hard for South Florida every day because I know that our strength lies in unity. No matter whose Congressional district you’re in, I'm honored to share my vision for the future with all South Floridians.”