Voters sent a clear message when they approved constitutional amendments to prevent the Legislature from drawing districts designed to protect incumbents or political parties. The Florida Supreme Court hears arguments today on lawmakers' attempt to meet the new standards, and there is a compelling argument that the new maps fall short.
The Legislature has fought the new standards every step of the way, from trying to keep the amendments off the 2010 ballot to proposing its own changes. The House joined a federal lawsuit over identical standards for congressional districts and lost. Just weeks ago, a House committee approved legislation that would have shielded lawmakers from testifying in court about redistricting, but House leaders abandoned it after a public outcry. So public trust in the Legislature's intentions is running low.
The Senate argues the court's review should be "extremely limited," and the House warns the court about encroaching on the legislative branch's authority. But the justices should be thorough. Amendment 5 requires that the legislative districts not be drawn to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. They should be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries where possible. And they cannot reduce the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice. Evaluating all of those requirements and the lawmakers' intent requires more than a cursory once over.
Fortunately, a court majority signaled it intends to be diligent. In a 4-3 order, the court asked for the addresses of incumbent legislators. It's logical that knowing where lawmakers live is key to determining whether the districts improperly favor incumbents.
The new state Senate districts appear the least defensible. In the new map for the 120-member House, more than three dozen members find themselves sharing a new district. But in the 40-member Senate, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause say, no incumbents who could seek re-election are in the same district. It's hard to believe that is a coincidence. It's harder to believe it's an accident that those same incumbents are in new districts where they already represent more than two of every three residents.
Two Tampa Bay Senate districts deserve particular scrutiny. The new district occupied by Republican Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa loses Temple Terrace and New Tampa in Hillsborough, where until recently he was under criminal investigation from his years on the County Commission, and gains more of Pasco County, where he ran well two years ago. Then there is the minority district occupied by Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner, which packs Democrats in a district winding through three counties at the expense of making neighboring districts more competitive. To her credit, Joyner is one of the few African-American legislators who speaks out against drawing lines that protect black incumbents but create more safe Republican seats.
The Florida Supreme Court is the first stop in legal challenges to the new legislative districts. Voters changed the rules to make them fairer, and it's up to the justices to ensure the maps meet those new requirements. The new districts are an improvement over the old ones, but the Senate districts in particular need more work.