TALLAHASSEE — With just over four years left before another redistricting cycle begins, the Florida Supreme Court gave final approval to Florida's congressional map Wednesday, rejecting the Legislature's arguments for the fourth time and selecting boundaries drawn by the challengers in time for the 2016 election.
"Our opinion today — the eighth concerning legislative or congressional apportionment during this decade since the adoption of the landmark Fair Districts Amendment — should bring much needed finality to litigation concerning this state's congressional redistricting that has now spanned nearly four years in state courts," the court wrote in a 5-2 decision.
The ruling validated the map drawn by a coalition led by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and several Democrat-leaning individuals, and approved by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis after the Florida Legislature tried and failed to agree to a map in a special redistricting session.
Although the boundaries are now officially set for the 2016 elections, the map is expected to be challenged by at least two members of Congress in federal court. U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, have threatened a lawsuit for restricting the ability of their constituents to elect minorities to office.
House and Senate redistricting leaders, who have spent more than $11 million in taxpayer money unsuccessfully defending their congressional and state Senate maps, said they disagreed with the ruling but were not surprised by it.
"The court has taken a process that was already difficult and through their significant overreach and lack of judicial restraint made it much worse," said Rep. Jose Oliva, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee. He said the challengers and the court exhibited "blatant partisanship" and he looks forward to a federal challenge over allegations that the map violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
David King, lead attorney for the challengers, called the ruling "the culmination" of years of effort and "millions of dollars" spent by the plaintiffs.
"We drew a map that followed the Constitution, and now the Supreme Court has verified that," King told reporters. He said the plaintiffs are seeking to recover their attorneys fees under a law that allows the state to pay the legal costs borne by a private party that wins a verdict benefiting the entire state.
In July, the Supreme Court invalidated the congressional maps used to elect 27 lawmakers to Congress in 2012 and 2014, saying the Legislature violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state Constitution when it allowed improper interference by political operatives.
But after lawmakers met in special session in August and could not agree on a congressional map, the burden fell to Lewis, who rejected two maps submitted by the Legislature and recommended a map proposed by the challengers.
The final map could shift the partisan makeup of the congressional delegation, which now has 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats, by creating at least three additional seats that favor Democrats.
The new configuration leaves three sitting members of Congress with significantly revised districts that favor the other party: Gwen Graham, a Democrat from Tallahassee; Dan Webster, a Republican from Winter Garden, and David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores. Jolly has already announced he will not seek re-election but is running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.
In Tampa Bay, the map merges most of Pinellas County into District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist's home. Crist, who praised the ruling, has announced he is running for Congress.
"There's no place like home, especially a home with fair congressional districts like we now have in Pinellas County," he said in a statement.
In Miami, the map creates new boundaries for Wilson and Miami Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The new District 26, now held by Curbelo, will have a majority of Democrats but will remain a Hispanic majority seat. The court describes the new District 27, now held by Ros-Lehtinen, as one that "sits compactly in central Miami-Dade County, rather than stretching south along the coast" to the Monroe County line.
Both said they would seek re-election in the new, more competitive districts.
In Palm Beach, the map draws Democrat U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch into the same district, but Deutch wasted no time saying he would run for the open seat that stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton, adjacent to his current district. Members of Congress do not need to live in the district they represent.
In Central Florida, the changes will move the African-American minority-majority District 5, currently held by Brown, out of the region and into North Florida. The previous configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.
In Eastern Hillsborough County, the changes mean that every voter south of the Alafia River would get a new member 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.
"It's sad that I will no longer have the honor of representing the southern part of Sarasota County, but I'm looking forward to meeting the people of Hillsborough County," Buchanan said.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross will see his district reach into Lake County, while losing parts of Hillsborough and Polk County.
"I respect today's decision by the Florida Supreme Court approving the congressional redistricting maps approved earlier by Leon District Court Judge Terry Lewis," Ross said. "I look forward to running for re-election and working for the great people of Florida's 15th Congressional District which will now include parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.
The ruling also is likely to have a bearing on the pending redistricting challenge over the Senate maps, which also must be resolved in time for the 2016 elections.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds has scheduled a five-day trial Dec. 14-18 after which he will present a recommendation to the Supreme Court. In a hearing Tuesday, Reynolds disagreed with the plaintiffs and said they had as much of a responsibility to bear the burden of showing their maps were not drawn to favor one party or the other.
Justice Barbara Pariente, who authored the landmark ruling in July, also authored the Wednesday opinion. She directed her criticism at Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston who wrote dissenting opinions, and she rejected Canady's argument that the decision moves the "goalposts" on the Legislature in its redrawing of the districts.
"The goal has not changed and has always been compliance with the Fair Districts Amendment," Pariente wrote for the majority. "At this stage, after a finding that the 2012 congressional redistricting plan had been drawn with improper intent, the Legislature bears the burden of justifying its redrawn configurations. The Legislature did not escape this burden when it was unable to agree on a plan to enact and subsequently asked all parties to submit alternative plans to the trial court."
The July ruling ordered the Legislature to redraw the map in South Florida by keeping the City of Homestead whole, and also to redraw District 5, the black-majority district held by Brown that divided the center of the state from Jacksonville to Sanford.
The court said the Legislature failed to meet its burden in justifying its configuration of Districts 26 and 27, in Miami-Dade County, rejecting the argument that by creating a Democrat-leaning Hispanic District 26, as the challengers' map does, the district will inevitably elect a Democrat but not someone who is Hispanic.
"The problem is that the argument is much more compelling than the evidence offered in support of it," the court said. "The Legislature's argument rests on an unproven assumption of Hispanic voting cohesion and polarized racial bloc voting — the establishment of which is the first step in any retrogression analysis."
The court approved the Legislature's configuration of District 5 and noted that it was "drawn by legislative staff, passed by both the House and Senate, and agreed to by the challengers."
In a statement released late Wednesday, Wilson complained that the new map removes "economic drivers and cultural attractions" from District 24, which she represents, and will now create "an area of economic apartheid."
But in a strongly worded concurring opinion, Justice E.C. Perry took aim at similar criticisms made previously by Wilson, Brown and leaders of the NAACP, which also opposed the challengers' map. Perry's opinion was joined by Justice Peggy Quince. Both are black.
"The efforts to paint this process as partisan or invoke the antebellum period are an unjustified attack on the integrity of our judicial system," Perry wrote. "Had those who were elected by the people heeded their electorate, our involvement would never have been required."
He said the approved map "increases the number of districts where minorities, both racial and ethnic, will have the opportunity to elect the representatives of their choice. The boundaries may have changed, but the purpose and goal of the Voting Rights Act and Florida's Fair Districts Amendment have been better met under this plan.
"Originally, the right to vote was limited to white male landowners. Others had to fight and die for the privilege to be extended to them. It is an insult to their struggle for politicians to now use that sacrifice for personal benefit."
Canady agreed with part of the majority decision while Polston disagreed with the entire ruling for adopting a plan drawn by "Democratic operatives." He chastised the court for violating the separation of power clause of the U.S. Constitution and argued that the court did not require the challengers to prove their map was not drawn to benefit Democrats.
"Who knows what additional evidence of improper partisan intent would have surfaced if this Court had permitted the same discovery regarding this mapmaking process that it permitted regarding the legislative mapmaking process," Polston wrote.
That is the same argument lawyers for the Legislature are making in opposing the maps proposed by the challengers in the Senate redistricting fight and the majority opinion attempted to address that claim, noting that the final map paired Democrat incumbents into the same district in Palm Beach County against the wishes of many Democrats.
The court also addressed criticisms echoed in the Senate redistricting trial that "the trial court erred in not considering the intent of the drafters" of the alternative map.
"Although the maps themselves were not on trial, their drafters were called to testify during the relinquishment hearing and were subject to cross-examination," the court said.
In his dissenting opinion, Canady said he would have adopted the map proposed by Senate Reapportionment Committee chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and criticized the majority for being inconsistent. For example, he said, the court did not reject splitting the City of Hialeah in 2014 but "is now condemned and cited as a basis to reject districts approved by the House and Senate."
"I strongly disagree with moving the goalposts in this manner," he wrote.
The court said that because the original map "was tainted with partisan intent coming out of a shadow process in which political operatives infiltrated and influenced the Legislature" the Legislature had the burden to prove its maps followed the Fair District guidelines but it failed that burden.
"In reaching our conclusion, we used the trial court's detailed findings as to how the operatives concealed their actions by using proxies to submit their proposals, wrote scripts for others to state, and made a mockery of the Legislature's proclaimed transparent and open process."
It accused the Legislature of wrongly "trying to conflate several arguments" and emphasized that "this case does not pit this Court versus the Legislature, but instead implicates this Court's responsibility to vindicate 'the essential right of our citizens to have a fair opportunity to select those who will represent them.' "
The ruling also chastised the Legislature for failing to follow the court's directive to emphasize transparency when it ordered staff to prepare proposed draft maps, noting that none of the meetings in which staff met with attorneys to develop "base maps" were recorded or transcribed.
Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @maryellenklas.