The coalition consists of several groups, including the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida. They have acted as the plaintiff in the many trials that have surrounded the redistricting efforts in recent years.
George Meros Jr., an attorney from GrayRobinson representing the State House, spent a portion of his allotted time before the Court on Tuesday, November 10, trying to convince the Judges that the maps presented by the coalition should be rejected due to being unconstitutional. One of the main reasons he cited was it would hinder the Hispanic population in some districts from choosing a candidate.
"It was redrawn to favor Republicans even more than the original maps," Florida Supreme Court Judge Barbara Pariente said during the hearing. "I have trouble with the House's position here."
"There is no evidence in the record that these map drawers drew that configuration in order to improve Republican performance," Mero responded. "They had no idea."
The hearing concluded after roughly an hour of arguments from both the plaintiffs and defendants.
Those standing before the court were not the only ones to offer their opinions on the proceedings. United States Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat from the 5th District in northern Florida, was critical of the process after the Supreme Court recessed.
“What has happened is that it is clear that you all think that slavery still exists, and we can just take those slaves and put them in one area and forget about the people who didn’t have representation for 129 years,” Brown said. “There is no justice in this courthouse. I will be going to the federal courthouse because there is no justice, and there will be no peace. We’ll go all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”
Her District, of course, was one of those ordered by the courts to be redrawn to conform to the 2010 amendments.
Blame for the failure to produce a map had been going around before the Court convened, though. After the latest special session concluded last week without a map to show for it, politicians involved in the process were quick to offer opinions of where the fault should land.
"As hard as everybody tries to be objective, there's certain subjectivity to it. What does Emerson say? A fish can't describe water because they're submerged in it," State Senator Bill Galvano, Republican from Bradenton, said.
"I don't believe the plaintiffs want to see a legislatively approved map," Representative Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting, said during the recent Florida House special session. "They're not an honest player in this process."
“This has certainly been a difficult time, and I truly believe there are those who have set out to do everything they can to produce chaos and confusion and truly make this impossible to succeed and make us have a hard time succeeding in this effort,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Republican representing Merritt Island, said.
However, the coalition’s stated push is to create voting districts representative of their populations rather than of politics, and they feel that the Legislature has not taken the process seriously up to this point.
"The coalition does not consider redistricting a game," David King, the head attorney representing the coalition, said in a statement. "It is a very serious effort to ensure that voters can fairly choose their representatives and to stop legislators from rigging districts to favor themselves and their political parties."
“The Legislature has fought the Fair Districts Amendments from the moment they were introduced,” King said. “By blaming the amendments, rather than themselves, they are simply perpetuating their opposition to the will of the people and engaging in the very conduct that Florida voters clearly wanted to eliminate from our state.”
This issue is not one that popped up overnight. While the Fair Districts amendment was approved in 2010 with 63 percent of the vote, it was the latest in a long line of attempts by the League of Women Voters and several other groups to counteract what they saw as rampant gerrymandering in districts throughout the state.
Pamela Goodman, the president of the Florida League of Women’s Voters, spoke in Lee County this past Weekend on the redistricting issue, bringing local League members up to date on the subject.
This congressional map of Glorida drawn in 2012 was ruled unconstitutional by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in July 2014.
“When the League first came to Florida 76 years ago, they identified Gerrymandering as one of the problems this state had,” Goodman said. “Florida was one of the most gerrymandered states in the country back then. Through the years, it has always been a priority of ours.”
“We’ve gone through five very close campaigns in the last 20 years to get something like these amendments on the ballots,” Goodman continued. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that they successfully got Amendments 5 and 6 to voters, with standards for legislators to follow when they redraw maps in the redistricting process. These standards called for districts that were roughly equal in population, contiguous, compact, and to have natural geographical boundaries where it was possible.
“Up to that point, there were no rules, no standards, nothing,” Goodman said. “It was essentially the politicians choosing their voters, rather than us choosing them.”
Over the next two years, the coalition successfully gathered 1.6 million signatures, getting the amendments to the ballots and securing their passage into law.
Redistricting took place in 2012, and while there were assurances by the Legislature that they had heard and would act upon the will of the people, several of their proposed maps were found wanting.
“The House map looked pretty good,” Goodman said. “The other two (for the Congressional and State Senate maps) failed miserably.”
With those failures, the process then went to the courts, where Judge Terry Lewis found the maps drawn by the legislature to not be in compliance with the amendments. He mandated that the legislature hold a special session to address the problem. Reconvening for 3 days in August of 2014, the legislature redrew the maps. While the circuit court initially accepted these revisions, the coalition took the case to Florida’s Supreme Court.
In July of this year, the highest court of the state ruled in favor of the coalition that 27 congressional districts did not meet the standards set by the voters.
However, special sessions held throughout the summer and fall of 2015 failed to produce a working map that the coalition was satisfied with. $11 million later, the process came back into the hands of the State’s Supreme Court.
“The League is laser-focused on seeing this litigation through to the end,” Goodman said. “We’re a few court cases away from finalizing the State Senate and Congressional maps.”
When asked what the League’s hopes were for the process in future redistricting, Goodman had hopes they could avoid the court battles in seven years’ time.
“Avoiding this amount of litigation is the number one priority for the next round of redistricting (in 2022),” Goodman said. “We have a lot of work to do, but what we don’t want to do is spend another $11 million in taxpayer money.”
By Trent Townsend