Florida Supreme Court hears one more challenge to congressional district maps

Published March 5, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's congressional redistricting maps should be rejected because they are the product of a shadowy process infiltrated by Republican political operatives in violation of the law against partisan gerrymandering, lawyers argued before the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of voters and the League of Women Voters, want the court to adopt an alternative map because, they said, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis erred when he ruled that the entire map had been infiltrated by operatives but then asked lawmakers to redraw only two of the districts.

The court concluded that the political operatives "tainted the map with improper partisan intent,'' said David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters, who initially commended Lewis for his ruling. King said that constituted an "intentional violation by the Legislature" and invalidated the map.

But lawyers for the Legislature, which was ordered by a circuit court to redraw two of the 27 congressional districts in August, said Lewis concluded that the Legislature's professional staff — John Guthrie, Alex Kelly and Jason Poreda — drew the maps and "were not part of the conspiracy" conducted by the political operatives.

Lewis acted properly, Cantero argued, when he upheld the final re-do of the redistricting map by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers redrew District 5, a snake-shaped district that stretches from Orlando to Jacksonville and is held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and District 10, an Orlando-based district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

The case is the latest round in an ongoing battle over the state's congressional maps under the Fair Districts rules, which were approved by voters in 2010 to block attempts at partisan gerrymandering of political boundaries. It may be the final legal frontier for the congressional maps, which have undergone a series of legal challenges since they were first adopted by the Florida Legislature in 2012. Another lawsuit, challenging the state Senate maps, is ongoing.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente pressed the plaintiffs to explain what remedy they would like the court to adopt if it agrees that the maps were a violation of the Fair Districts law.

King said the court should order a redrawn map similar to one offered by the plaintiffs that, he argues, would enable 203,000 more minorities to be able to elect their own candidates.

But Justice Charles Canady, himself a former state legislator, argued that the alternative proposal appears to violate one of the principles of the Fair Districts rules because it would be less compact. The map is also opposed by the NAACP.

During the hourlong proceeding, several GOP lawmakers sat in the front row: Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, who is in line to be House speaker in 2016; Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton; and Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.