Legislature asks Florida Supreme Court to pick a different congressional map

Published Nov. 11, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The three-year battle over Florida's congressional boundaries moved to the state's highest court Tuesday where lawyers for the Legislature tried to get a trial court map declared unconstitutional but instead found themselves defending the way lawmakers handled two Hispanic districts in Miami-Dade County.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, who authored the landmark ruling in July that invalidated Florida's 27 congressional districts, grilled the attorney for the Florida House for "jumping over" portions of the ruling "as if it didn't exist."

"The reason that it was to be redrawn was it was drawn to favor the Republican Party," Pariente told George Meros, the lawyer for the House.

But when the House redrew Districts 26 and 27 in Miami, "it was redrawn to favor Republicans even more than the original," she said. "I'm having trouble with the House's position here."

Meros countered: "There is no evidence in the record… that these map drawers drew that configuration in order to improve Republican performance," he said. "They had no idea."

The Legislature's handling of Miami districts is at the heart of the dispute over whether the court will accept or reject the map drawn by the challengers, a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters as well as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis rejected the Legislature's third attempt at redrawing Florida congressional districts last month and recommended a map proposed by the challengers. The Florida Supreme Court declared the congressional boundaries used in the 2012 and 2014 elections were invalid because lawmakers had allowed improper interference by political operatives in violation of the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution, and now the court has the final say in setting the congressional lines in time for the 2016 elections.

As the justices listened to the lawyers, two incumbent Congresswomen, U.S., Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, sat in the audience, later lashing out against the court-ordered maps, which they said would violate the federal Voting Rights Act and weaken the ability of blacks to be fairly represented. They said that after the court approves any of the maps, they will file a federal lawsuit.

"In this Supreme Court, there is no justice for African Americans," said Brown, her voice rising with anger on the steps of the courthouse.

She said the justices made no mention of the Voting Rights Act which protect minority voters. "It's just like we are slaves and you can just move us around — cattle, body parts," she said.

Wilson said the proposed map "shaves the economic engines" of out of her district by removing the Port of Miami, AmericanAirlines Arena, Watson Island, Jungle Island, Bayfront Park and the downtown financial district and weakening her ability to help those in economic distress.

"They stripped me to silence me. I make too much noise," she said. "If you want to silence me, take away my economic engines and I have nothing to talk about, nothing to champion, nothing to do."

In its precedent-setting July ruling, the court ordered the Legislature to redraw eight districts and set guidelines for doing it. Among the directives was to shift Brown's district from dividing the center of the state to crossing the northern part of the state in an east-west configuration.

The court also ordered the Legislature to keep the city of Homestead whole. The Legislature's solution was to create a district that performed better for Republicans by removing the black communities of Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates and West Perrine from District 26, held by Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, into the neighboring District 27, now held by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

While challengers agreed with the Legislature's redrafting of Brown's District 5, they disagreed with the way they handled Curbelo's district, accused them of intentionally moving black Democrats out of the district to improve his chances for re-election.

The Legislature countered that the only way to avoid reducing the ability of Hispanics to elect their own candidate was to leave District 26 more Republican-leaning.

But Lewis rejected that argument, noting that "Hispanics have consistently elected the candidate of their choice" in the region.

Meros told the court Tuesday it should reject the map drawn by the challengers as "unconstitutional" saying the new District 26 in Miami leans Democratic and would diminish Hispanic voting strength. The court should replace it with the House proposal, he said.

But Pariente cited Lewis' ruling that rejected the House map for taking a "very minimalist approach" to fixing the flaws in the Miami districts and reminded Meros that "it wasn't just that Homestead was split. We found an unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party."

Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice who is the lead lawyer for the Senate, said that because Hispanic Democrats make up only 22.8 percent of proposed District 26, a non-Hispanic candidate has a better chance of winning in an election, thereby diminishing minority voting strength — in violation of the Fair Districts provisions.

"It diminishes the ability of Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice," he said.

If adopted by the court, the map will mean new boundaries for Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen and Wilson.

It will also leave three sitting members of Congress in precarious re-election situations: 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 Congressional District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist's home. Crist has announced he is running for Congress.

In Central Florida, the changes will move the African-American minority-majority District 5 out of the region and into North Florida, the seat currently held by Brown. The previous configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.