TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to Florida's political landscape Thursday, throwing out the state's carefully crafted congressional districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature and ordering a new map within 100 days.
In the historic 5-2 ruling, the court not only ruled the maps were the product of an unconstitutional political gerrymandering, it signaled its deep distrust of lawmakers and provided detailed instructions on how to repair the flawed map in time for the 2016 election.
"This is a complete victory for the people of Florida who passed the Fair District amendment and sought fair representation where the Legislature didn't pick their voters," said David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and the coalition of voter groups which brought the challenge. "The Supreme Court accepted every challenge we made and ordered the Legislature to do it over.''
The new maps are likely to reconfigure nearly all of the state's 27 congressional districts, open the door to new candidates, and threaten incumbents, who will now face a new set of boundary lines and constituents close to the 2016 election.
The most significant change came in the North Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The court ordered District 5, originally drawn by a federal court in 1992 and which extends from Jacksonville to Orlando, must be redrawn in an east-west direction, potentially making room for a minority-access district in the Orlando area.
The court also ordered revisions to South Florida Districts 25, 26 and 27, currently held by Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In the Tampa Bay area, the court ordered the redrawing of District 13, currently held by Republican David Jolly, and the 14th, held by Democrat Kathy Castor.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said the court affirmed "the trial court's factual findings and ultimate determination that the redistricting process and resulting map were 'taint(ed)' by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents."
But the justices reversed the trial court's order approving the Legislature's revised redistricting plan "because we conclude that, as a result of legal errors, the trial court failed to give the proper effect to its finding of unconstitutional intent, which mandated a more meaningful remedy commensurate with the constitutional violations it found."
The court concluded however, that the plantiffs didn't show enough evidence to support revisions to the whole map but ordered changes to eight districts "and other districts affected by the redrawing."
The court also ordered the Legislature to turn over all documents related to the redrawn maps and urged lawmakers to refrain from conducting secret meetings and "consider making all decisions on the redrawn map in public view."
In siding with a coalition of Democrat-backed voter groups, the court majority concluded that lawmakers violated the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution. The amendments were approved in 2010 by more than 63 percent of voters — over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature — to prohibit lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties.
The court gave the Legislature 100 days to meet in special session to complete a new map, and ordered the trial court to issue an order that opens the door for it to review the final product. House and Senate leaders have not responded to the ruling.
The victory was long-fought for the plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of voter groups including Common Cause and the League of Women Voter who worked to get the amendments added to the constitution and tried and failed to get the lower court to redraw the entire map.
"This has been a long, hard battle against what has been unbelievable devious political scheming and egregious behavior of our politicians,"' said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
The new rules not only created new standards but forced a trial that revealed that the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries that had been touted by legislators as "historic" and "transparent" was clouded in secrecy.
In addition to resetting the political landscape, the ruling could put incumbents at greater risk than is normal in a mid-decade election, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and an expert on redistricting, because any shift in district boundaries gives them less time to appeal to new constituents.
"In a typical redistricting cycle, the redistricting happens well over a year prior to the next congressional elections and that gives incumbents a lot of time to do things they can claim credit for,'' McDonald told the Times/Herald.
"All they can do is spend campaign dollars,'' McDonald said. "They can't do other things to endear themselves to constituents."
Last summer, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis concluded that political operatives had worked to "hijack" the state's redistricting process and tainted the map with "improper partisan intent." But rather than reject the entire map, Lewis ordered two districts to be redrawn — District 5, a snake-shaped district that stretches from Orlando to Jacksonville and is held by Brown, a Democrat, and District 10, an Orlando-based district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.
In 12 pages, the Supreme Court recounted in detail the trial court evidence that revealed the depth of the relationships between the partisan political operatives and the legislative leaders — even noting how GOP consultant Marc Reichelderfer lived near former House Speaker Dean Cannon and how "their families spent time together, Reichelderfer saw Cannon on the weekends."
The court commended Lewis' finding that the maps were "tainted by unconstitutional intent" to benefit Republicans and incumbents but disagreed with his legal reasoning for limiting the fix to two districts and leaving the rest, because the Legislature no longer deserved to be given any deference.
"After reaching the conclusion that the 'redistricting process' and the 'resulting map' had been 'taint(ed)' by unconstitutional intent, the burden should have shifted to the Legislature to justify its decisions, and no deference should have been afforded to the Legislature's decisions regarding the drawing of the districts," the court wrote.
The Legislature held a special session last August to make the changes. Plaintiffs appealed, asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject the map and approve an alternate proposed by the plaintiffs.
The ruling renewed the racial tensions that have coursed through the Florida's redistricting battle for decades.
Brown blasted the decision as "seriously flawed" and a potential violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. She repeated the claims of lawyers for the Legislature and the NAACP who said that dissolving her district would divide black communities and perpetuate the racially polarized voting that in the past has prohibited African-Americans from electing representatives of their choice.
"As a people, African-Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly not taking any steps backwards," she said in a statement.
King said that Brown has a right to challenge the ruling in federal court but hoped she wouldn't.
"The court makes it abundantly clear the new configuration will be an ability for the district to election a minority candidate,"' he said.
The ruling establishes a new legal standard for what has already a history-making process. During the precedent-setting trial, reporters and the public were removed from the courtroom and the live television stream was shut off to allow political operative Pat Bainter to testify for three hours.
GOP political consultant Frank Terraferma and other political operatives testified how proposed maps with shadowy names such as "Sputnik," "Schmedloff" and "Frankenstein" were created and then secretly shared during the months legislative staff were also drawing maps.
For the first time in state history, sitting legislators were called to testify and they admitted to routinely deleting redistricting records. A legislative staffer admitted to giving a flash drive of maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they became public. Phone records of a House speaker and his right hand man, sought for more than a year, were never produced. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.
The maps drawn by political consultants closely mirrored those submitted under the name of a former Florida State University student Alex Posada, who denied being associated with the redistricting process. Plaintiffs argued that was proof that GOP consultants had orchestrated a "shadow" system to infiltrate the redistricting process.
The congressional maps were first challenged in 2012, the year they adopted by the Florida Legislature.
The plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit this year, challenging the Senate maps, also drawn in 2012. Oral arguments in that case have been scheduled for September in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial District in Leon County.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.