TALLAHASSEE — A judge on Thursday struck down the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendment concerning political districts because, he said, it is too confusing for voters to understand.
Amendment 7 was drafted by the Republican-led Legislature in response to two other proposed amendments that a liberal-leaning citizen group placed on the ballot. Those amendments, 5 and 6, would make it tougher for lawmakers to draw political districts that favor a political party or an incumbent.
But the Legislature's proposal — which lawmakers said would "clarify" the amendments of the Fair Districts Florida group — created far more confusion, Tallahassee Circuit Judge James Shelfer said in a ruling from the bench.
"I can hardly think that the average voter going in the voting booth would be able to make an informed decision," Shelfer said. "It took me three days — in reading all of these cases, reading all of these briefings, hearing all of your arguments — to get a handle on what this amendment did and its effect on the existing laws and the Constitution."
A written ruling by Shelfer is expected in the next few days. The case likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
One paragraph from Amendment 7 stood out as being particularly complicated. It says "the state shall take into consideration the ability of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice, and communities of common interest other than political parties may be respected and promoted, both without subordination to any other provision of this article."
Shelfer also said the amendment as written could wipe out a state constitutional provision that says districts must be "contiguous" — that is, all the voters in a district must live in communities touching to one another.
Ron Meyer, an attorney who argued against the Legislature's plan, described the proposal as "gobbledygook." He represents the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which supports the Fair Districts proposals.
The process of drawing political boundaries, known as redistricting, occurs once a decade after each census. Lawmakers create new legislative and congressional districts to ensure they have the same number of people. It often involves a heightened dose of political and racial wrangling because legislators essentially choose their own voters and set the parameters for elections for the next 10 years.
A measure intended to reduce legislators' redistricting power is also being pushed by conservative groups in California, which has historically been controlled by Democrats. In Florida, Fair Districts is funded by unions, trial lawyers and other Democratic-leaning contributors.
Critics of Florida's system point out that Republicans control almost two-thirds of the Legislature and three-fifths of U.S. House seats, but registered Republicans are about 36 percent of the electorate.
The Fair Districts amendments survived earlier court challenges from the Legislature, in part because another court ruled their wording was more straightforward. The amendments say lawmakers cannot intend to favor a political party or incumbent when drawing districts. They also say minority voting rights shall be protected.
Despite those minority provisions — and the backing of the NAACP — legislators said Fair Districts would hurt minority voting rights, in large part because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made certain minority voting districts harder to draw.
Two members of Florida's congressional delegation, Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, filed their own lawsuit against the Fair Districts amendments to knock them off the ballot.
In a separate hearing Thursday in that case, attorneys argued whether a judge should dismiss the Diaz-Balart challenge. Fair Districts supporters pointed out the courts have already approved their amendments for the Nov. 2 ballot. A lawyer for Brown and Diaz-Balart said the trial court is allowed to consider the case. A ruling on that matter could come as early as today.
Future Senate President Mike Haridopolos held months of hearings this spring to poke holes in the Fair Districts proposals and pushed his rival amendment in the waning days of the legislative session. He persuaded state Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat and leader of the black caucus, to sponsor the amendment.
Both Haridopolos and Siplin repeatedly said Amendment 7 just "clarifies" Amendments 5 and 6. Haridopolos said he was perplexed by the judge's ruling.
"If he found our amendment confusing," he said, "he'll find 5 and 6 absolutely bewildering."
Gov. Charlie Crist, who earlier filed a brief in support of Fair Districts, disagreed with that claim.
"I don't think they're confusing at all," he said Thursday. "They call for fair districts, fair representation. That's the right thing to do for the people of our state."
Ellen Freidin, the Fair Districts chairwoman, applauded the ruling and said she is confident her efforts will eventually prevail.
"We have always been confident that any court would look at this and see it for exactly what it is," she said. "It's an attempt to fool the voters, and, as the judge said, to hide the ball."