TALLAHASSEE — State officials on Monday cleared the final two hurdles needed to put their new redistricting maps into effect, setting the stage for candidates to qualify for office using the state's new political boundaries.
In a one-page letter to state officials, the U.S. Department of Justice said the state House, Senate and congressional maps do not appear to violate the federal Voting Rights Act. In a separate ruling, a trial court judge rejected the Democrats' argument that the congressional map should be put on hold while it is being litigated in Leon County Circuit Court.
The two decisions dealt a one-two punch to Democratic Party efforts to halt the redistricting maps drawn by the Republican-led Legislature. But they also mean that candidates for 27 congressional seats, 40 state Senate districts and 120 state House seats can now rely on the new boundaries to file their election papers during qualification week June 4-8.
The new maps were drawn according to a new set of anti-gerrymandering guidelines approved by voters in 2010. Despite the uncharted waters in applying the new Fair Districts rules, legislators finished the job earlier than usual.
"Reaching this important milestone earlier than in prior redistricting cycles is a testament to the hard work of stakeholders,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate redistricting committee in a letter to supervisors of elections on Monday.
"Going forward, we will work with the Department of State and supervisors of elections as the new maps are implemented,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the House redistricting chairman. "Floridians should feel confident knowing their county election officials have plenty of time to prepare for the upcoming elections."
While the maps are complete, the litigation process is not.
The Florida Democratic Party and a coalition of voter groups are challenging the constitutionality of the congressional map in Leon County, claiming that it not only violates the new ban against protecting incumbents and political parties but unfairly packs black and Hispanic voters into districts to give Republicans an electoral advantage.
The groups asked the court to stop the maps from taking effect this election cycle until a trial is held, but 2nd Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Monday rejected their claims.
In a 20-page opinion, Lewis said he understands their concern "that if elections go forward under what is later determined to be an unconstitutional redistricting plan, Florida citizens will have been denied their right to have meaningful participation in the election of their representatives." But, he added, the opponent did not prove their right to an injunction.
Lewis said that absent a determination that the map is unconstitutional, "I do not have the authority to replace it with another map while the case is pending."
If he put the 2012 map on hold, the result would be that the 2002 map would remain in effect — a map, he said, that "was admittedly drawn to favor the Republican Party and incumbents."
Lewis rejected the plaintiffs arguments that several districts, from South Florida to Tampa Bay, violate the constitution. He said, however, there is sufficient data surrounding the sprawling North Florida-based district now held by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville to question "whether it is possible to design a more compact district in northeast Florida that would not diminish the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice."
U.S. Assistant Attorney Thomas Perez also hinted that future litigation is possible. He noted that the federal government's approval of the maps, known as "pre-clearance," does not bar future legal challenges on the grounds that they violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux said Democrats are considering additional lawsuits. He said they "remain concerned about elements of the map and we will continue to evaluate our legal options moving forward.''
Florida is required to have its redistricting maps receive approval from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division because five counties have a history of racial discrimination in elections. The federal government clears the maps, and all other voting law changes, to determine if voting rights are preserved for minorities in Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hendry and Hardee counties.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.