The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld the use of independent redistricting commissions by Arizona and other states, and Florida should pursue a constitutional amendment to adopt the same approach. Florida voters approved new rules for redrawing congressional and legislative districts nearly five years ago, but the changes did not go far enough and the results are less than satisfying. Now that the court has endorsed the use of independent commissions, Florida should establish one so that the districts can be more fairly drawn.
The court ruled 5-4 to approve the commissions and rejected a challenge by the Arizona Legislature, which complained it is unconstitutional to delegate the responsibility for congressional redistricting to anyone but state lawmakers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in the majority opinion that the redistricting commissions do not violate the obscure Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which she said was intended to enable Congress to override state election rules rather than limit how states enact legislation. She said the clause should not be interpreted as a means "to disarm states from adopting modes of legislation that place the lead rein in the people's hands.''
That is exactly where the lead rein for redistricting should be placed, because state legislators have demonstrated for decades that they are incapable of putting the public interest ahead of their own personal and partisan interests. Thirteen states use commissions in the redistricting process to varying degrees, and Florida should join that list. That can only be done by another amendment to the Florida Constitution, and don't expect the Republican-led Legislature to put one on the ballot.
In 2010, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts amendments, which were aimed at preventing lawmakers from gerrymandering congressional and legislative districts when they redraw the districts once every 10 years to reflect population changes. Those amendments say the districts have to be drawn without favoring or disfavoring incumbents or political parties. The districts have to be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries where possible, and they cannot reduce the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
Yet Florida legislators in 2012 drew districts that were only modest improvements and produced few competitive races. They also had trouble following the new rules. The Florida Supreme Court threw out the Legislature's first attempt at drawing new state Senate districts and forced several districts to become more compact. That map is still being challenged in court. So is the flawed congressional map, which a circuit judge ordered redrawn last year. Those changes are not to take effect until the 2016 elections and also are before the state Supreme Court.
The Legislature simply cannot be trusted to draw the fairest districts. The court fights revealed a secretive effort by Republican consultants to influence where the lines were drawn. Because of the way the districts are drawn, there still are few legislative and congressional districts where candidates from both political parties can be competitive. In a state that Democratic President Barack Obama won twice, the Legislature and the congressional delegation remain overwhelmingly Republican.
There has got to be a better way. Chief Justice John Roberts declared in a stinging dissent joined by three other conservative justices that the independent redistricting commission in Arizona is still tainted by partisanship and "does not seem to be so 'independent.' '' But there are different ways of creating the commissions with regard to size, appointments and responsibilities.
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Florida has a long, sorry history of state legislators who refused to set their own interests aside and draw fair districts until the courts forced them to make a better effort. The 2010 Fair Districts amendments were a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. For the best shot at fairly drawn congressional and legislative districts, there will have to be another voter-initiated constitutional amendment that hands the job to an independent redistricting commission.