TALLAHASSEE — A judge threw out Florida's congressional map late Thursday, ruling that the Legislature allowed for a "secret, organized campaign" by partisan operatives to subvert the redistricting process in violation of the state Constitution.
In a 41-page ruling, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said that two of the state's 27 districts are invalid and must be redrawn, along with any other districts affected by them, to bring the map into compliance with the state's new Fair District amendments.
The case, brought by a coalition led by the League of Women Voters, is expected to be appealed and ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court.
Any change in the political lines for Congress would have a ripple effect on other races, and raised questions on when the map would be redrawn.
Lewis rejected challenges to districts in South Florida and Tampa Bay, but said that District 5, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, and District 10, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden "will need to be redrawn, as will any other districts affected thereby."
The judge agreed with the coalition's prime argument: that Republican legislators and staffers collaborated with political consultants to create "a shadow redistricting process" that protected incumbents and the GOP.
"We were extremely gratified," said David King, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "It's gratifying when the court accepts and understands your argument."
Legislative leaders said in a statement they are reviewing the ruling and would not comment.
The 13-day trial lifted the veil on the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries and was rife with political intrigue that involved numerous side lawsuits, a closed hearing to keep the testimony of GOP consultant Pat Bainter off the public record, and closing briefs filled with redacted references to Bainter's documents.
Lewis defended his decision to allow documents from Bainter into the record, although he agreed to close the courtroom and seal the documents to do it.
"The evidence was highly relevant and not available from other sources," he wrote, "… to show how extensive and organized" the shadow map-making process was "and what lengths they went in order to conceal what they were doing."
Lewis said political consultants "made a mockery of the Legislature's transparent and open process of redistricting" while "going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan 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 that the circumstantial evidence proved that the political operatives "managed to find other avenues … to infiltrate and influence the Legislature."
Lewis drew no conclusions that House Speaker Will Weatherford, former House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Don Gaetz were aware of the scheme, but he raised doubts that they were not in some way complicit. The judge detailed the involvement of Cannon's aide, Kirk Pepper, and repeated evidence that came out at trial about Pepper forwarding draft maps to GOP operative Marc Reichelderfer.
Lewis also noted that legislative leaders and the political operatives destroyed almost all of their emails and other documents related to redistricting and concluded that the circumstantial evidence surrounding all of those developments, and the evidence that the consultants attempted to influence the same districts he has found problematic, proved the GOP operatives were trying to influence the process.
"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 would 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 boundary that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando and was first drawn by a court 20 years ago when Brown was first elected.
Lewis said the changes made to the other district, 10, "benefited the incumbent Representative Webster" and violated the Fair Districts rules.
Lewis also raised questions about the decision by House and Senate 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.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @maryellenklas.