Move to let court draw maps could reshape Florida politics — again

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis must rule on a map by Oct. 17.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis must rule on a map by Oct. 17.
Published Aug. 24, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators dissolved their two-week redistricting session Friday without agreement on a congressional map, they acknowledged they were ready to repeat something they had done only once before in state history — turning over the complicated task of drawing maps to the courts.

The year was 1992, when Bill Clinton and Ross Perot dominated national politics, Florida voters imposed term limits on politicians and Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami-Dade County.

Then, as now, one party controlled government. Lawton Chiles was governor and the House and Senate were run by Democrats. And yet then, as now, political dominance was not enough to overcome the pressures of personal ambition and intra-party divides.

The 1992 redistricting session ended in stalemate over a congressional map, and legislators turned the job over to a three-judge panel of federal judges. The court's signature change was the creation of a sprawling, wishbone-shaped minority-majority seat that linked black communities in 14 counties from Jacksonville to Orlando and back through Gainesville.

The argument: The federal Voting Rights Act protections required the state to link minority communities together where possible to create districts where black and Hispanic voters could elect candidates of their choice.

Now that sprawling district is at the heart of the redistricting ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that ordered the Legislature to redraw its congressional map and specifically end the practice of dividing counties through the center of the state in order to create a black-majority district.

This time, judges specifically ordered that the district run east-west along the northern counties of the state and, because the Legislature couldn't get the job done, the task will go to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis. He has until Oct. 17 to complete a plan and send it to the Florida Supreme Court for final review. The first hearing will be Tuesday.

"It's déjà vu all over again," said Miguel DeGrandy, a Miami attorney and former Republican state representative who successfully aligned with black Democrats in 1992 to challenge the congressional and legislative districts drawn by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

"The result of the 1992 redistricting was a gerrymandered Democrat plan that (the courts) transformed to a plan that became a Republican majority," said DeGrandy, who went on to lead the GOP redistricting team in 2002. "If the Democrats had known that then, they might not have let the courts take it over."

The outcome reshaped Florida's political landscape in a way that continues to reverberate. Republicans secured a majority of seats in the Senate in 1994 and in the House two years later. The last time a Democrat was elected speaker of the House — St. Petersburg lawyer Peter Rudy Wallace — would be 1994, also the last time Democrats in Florida elected a majority to Congress.

"Reapportionment has redefined Florida a couple of times and, historically, the court has been the catalyst," said Jon Mills, a former House speaker who is now a law professor at the University of Florida and was one of the experts hired to draft the language for the Fair Districts amendments.

Mills believes that the shift this time could be "monumental." DeGrandy predicts it will lead to "near parity in Florida's congressional delegation" — now dominated by 17 Republicans. There are 10 Democrats in the congressional delegation..

The first time the courts had a role was in the 1960s, when the Baker vs. Carr decision opened the door to court scrutiny of state redistricting decisions and created the precedent of evaluating them based on one person, one vote.

Three times the courts ordered the Florida Legislature to redraw its maps and each time lawmakers continued to pack more voters into the South Florida districts than those allotted to the members of the controlling "Pork Chop Gang." The group of rural conservative Democrats represented less than a quarter of the state's voters but controlled nearly all of the Legislature's power.

Only after the court took the unusual step of invalidating the results of the 1966 elections did the Florida Legislature hurriedly redraw the district maps in a way that satisfied the one-person, one-vote requirements. Lawmakers were forced to hold special elections in the spring of 1967 and the era of the Pork Chop Gang ended.

By the 1980s, Florida's population explosion led to four new seats in Congress, giving the state 19. After the successful push for the creation of majority-minority seats by black Democrats and Republicans, three of the new seats were won by African-American candidates — Carrie Meek in Miami, Alcee Hastings in Fort Lauderdale and Corrine Brown in Jacksonville — giving the state its first black voices in Congress since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.

In 1992, buoyed by new interpretations of the Voting Rights Act, DeGrandy and black legislators argued that the Democrat-drawn maps were intentionally fracturing African-American communities in order to pack them into separate districts that would perform better for their party and also argued that Democrats had illegally packed South Florida Hispanics into districts in order to strengthen the chances for a Democrat in neighboring districts.

"It was a strategy of packing and cracking," DeGrandy recalled.

However, in 1992, the rules were different than they are today. In 2010, voters approved the Fair Districts amendments to the state Constitution, banning lawmakers from intentionally drawing lines that favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.

In the 1990s, gerrymandering was not prohibited by law unless it inhibited the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against districts whose shapes were "irrational" or "bizarre,'' and it has concluded that race cannot be the predominant factor in creating legislative and congressional districts.

And the arguments DeGrandy and his colleagues made two decades ago are now being used by Democrats and redistricting reformers for why the Legislature's maps are flawed: because they pack minorities into districts to help Republicans get elected.

Meanwhile, the Fair Districts amendments have changed the role of the court as well.

"We actually have Florida standards so it's different this time," Mills said. "And the Florida court will be the interpreter of the Florida Constitution."

"There is a fundamental difference this time,'' said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor who has written extensively on Florida's redistricting history. "The court said they would let the Legislature redo the districts, but they gave them a very specific set of guidelines so that left very few choices."

DeGrandy believes the move to have the courts draw the maps is exactly as Mills and the authors of Fair Districts intended it. With court-drawn lines, the court can favor or disfavor incumbents or candidates but, he said, "the irony is, nobody can hold them to that standard because they are the final arbiter."

Jewett believes that the Voting Rights Act will continue to provide one check on the Florida courts, but only as it relates to minority districts. Brown has already threatened to file a Voting Rights Act lawsuit claiming the requirement that court-ordered changes to her district violate minority protections.

"The Florida Supreme Court has the semifinal word, but it's likely the federal courts will have the final, final say," he said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.