MIAMI — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected political gerrymandering by state legislators and ordered eight congressional districts redrawn within 100 days, a decision likely to complicate preparations for next year’s elections.
In the 5-to-2 decision, the justices concurred with a trial court’s finding that a 2012 redistricting map drawn by the Republican-led Legislature had been tainted by “unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbent lawmakers,” and that Republican “operatives” and political consultants “did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process.”
“This was a complete victory,” said David King, the lead lawyer for a group of plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters and Florida Common Cause, who had challenged the new map. In a conference call with reporters, Mr. King said the Supreme Court had evidently had no trouble finding a pattern of “partisan conduct on the part of both the Legislature and the partisan political operatives” who drew the boundaries.
The justices said the legislators had violated anti-gerrymandering measures approved by Florida voters in 2010. The court also chastised the legislators for conducting much of their redistricting business in private, and for destroying pertinent documents and emails even after vowing to be transparent about the process.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara J. Pariente noted that since many of the emails had been deleted, “We still may have only a partial picture of the behind-the-scenes political tactics.”
The court’s order will affect far more of the state’s 27 congressional districts than just the eight at issue, since their common borders will be in play. Legislators will have to go into special session to redraw the districts.
The Florida decision comes less than two weeks after the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that voters in Arizona were entitled to try to make the process of redistricting less partisan by giving the task to an independent commission.
Several states, including California, New Jersey, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Hawaii, use redistricting commissions, and the court effectively gave them its blessing. Officials in several other states, including Ohio, Maryland and Wisconsin, have said they might form similar panels.
There is no current plan in Florida to create a redistricting commission, a move that would require a constitutional amendment. But the decision in the Arizona case makes any attempt by Florida Republicans to challenge the State Supreme Court decision in federal courts unlikely, said Prof. Richard L. Hasen, who teaches law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and is an expert in election law.
“If they try to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, it would be unsuccessful,” Professor Hasen said. Either way, he predicted rough waters for Florida in some of its redrawing efforts, particularly in districts with large minority populations.
“If they don’t take minority interests enough into account, it could violate the Voting Rights Act, and if they pack minority voters into too few districts, it could create an unconstitutional racial gerrymander,” he said, referring to pending cases making that claim in Virginia and North Carolina.
He said the kind of gerrymandering seen in the Florida case and others left the clear impression of “trying to maximize your own party’s seats to the unfair detriment of the other party.”
State Senator Donald J. Gaetz, a Republican who was president of the Florida Senate at the time of the redistricting in 2012, said in a telephone interview that he had not read the court’s decision and would wait to hear from the current Senate president about next steps. Pressed for an opinion about the court’s determination that the redistricting had been tainted by partisanship, Mr. Gaetz said, “If I agreed with that characterization, I would not have voted for that plan along with a majority of Democrats and Republicans who voted for it.”
Scott Arceneaux, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said the court had “found Tallahassee Republicans guilty of unconstitutionally subverting Florida’s democracy” and creating an “unconstitutional mess.”
In a statement released by his office, Mr. Arceneaux said he hoped that “Republicans put aside their petty self-interest and — for once — respect the voice of Florida’s voters.”
Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida State League of Women Voters, said the decision “sets a precedent for many states across the country who are dealing with gerrymandered districts.”
“We had no idea of the nontransparent and shameful behavior of our legislators,” she said. “This was the fox guarding the henhouse. In gerrymandered states, lawmakers end up choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their legislators.”
Original article here.