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Friday, 11 December 2015 11:04

Florida Supreme Court Rules for Plaintiff's Maps

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The long, controversial story of Florida’s gerrymandered districts entered another chapter this week, as the State’s Supreme Court made a significant decision on the drawn boundaries that can often decide the makeup of our State Legislature before votes are even cast. Last week, on December 2nd, the Court passed down a ruling in favor of a hybrid congressional map that they felt answered to the call voters made in 2010 for fair districts.

In a 5-2 vote, the Judges approved a Congressional map that included several districts from redrawn maps by independent groups that pushed for the Fair District amendments targeting gerrymandering years earlier, combining them with a map that had been redrawn by the Florida Legislature. In fact, of the 27 districts that were redrawn by the Florida House of Representatives, 19 were accepted. The maps of the independent groups, including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, concentrated on Districts in South Florida, but also tackled more obvious offenders of Gerrymandering.

Perhaps the most glaring example is Congressional District 5 in the State’s northeast, a winding and perplexing mishmash of urban centers that stretches north to south from Jacksonville down to Orlando, and currently being represented by Democrat Corrine Brown.

Brown herself is unhappy with the ruling, and has been a vocal critic of redrawing the maps throughout the years-long process.

“Today’s ruling and the proposed congressional map is a direct attack on minority voters and a clear example of voter retrogression and disenfranchisement," Brown said of this latest ruling.

“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 this past November, when arguments in the Supreme Court were set to start. “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.”

The reasons given for the shape of that particular district was that it would provide a Voting Rights Act mandated majority-minority district. That reasoning did not hold up in the chambers of the Supreme Court, which stated that the Legislature failed to properly demonstrate why the Fifth Districts winding, incontiguous course met that particular constitutional need in the face its violation of the Fair District Amendments.

"Republican political operatives successfully infiltrated the redistricting process with the coordination and cooperation of the Legislature, resulting in a redistricting plan that was tainted with improper partisan intent," the Court wrote in the past week’s ruling.

The new configuration of this district will run east to west from Jacksonville along the Florida-Georgia Border, ending in Gadsden County.

"The democratic process prevailed today in a landmark victory for Florida citizens," Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said of the decision.

However, several others were disappointed with the result, as the changing borders of the districts could result in tough challenges for Democratic and Republican representatives alike.

"I'm disappointed by the court's decision," Democratic Representative Gwen Graham said. "It's likely these maps will still be challenged in federal court — and I will make a decision about how to best serve the people of North Florida once the maps have been completely settled."

Both she and Republican representative Daniel Webster out of the Orlando area are expected to be among the hardest hit by these changes. Republican David Jolly from Tampa opted to not even run again for his seat, as the new maps turned his district into a strong candidate for a Democratic pickup in 2016. Former Governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist has thrown his hat into the ring for Jolly’s old seat.

Brown herself could face a primary from within her own party, as whispers within the political circles say that this past week’s decision could open the door for a challenge for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for the Fifth District.

Back in 2010, Florida voters passed amendments 5 and 6 with a 63 percent approval, which attempted to set standards for the redrawing of districts, with a desire for districts that were equal in population, contiguous, compact, and with natural geographic boundaries when possible. At the time, the victory seemed timely, as redistricting was set to take place in 2012, with hopes that the Legislature would have ample time to redraw the maps according to the will of the voters.

However, over the course of the next 5 years, the fights continued through the courts as the Legislature was accused of seemingly being unable or unwilling to divorce themselves carving up towns, cities, and counties in order to favor incumbents and political lines.

The 2012 redrawn maps were brought before the state circuit courts, where Judge Terry Lewis found that the maps were not in compliance with the amendments. From there, numerous special sessions were launched in the Legislature. The first took place over the course of 3 days in August 2014, producing maps that were initially accepted by the lower courts, but eventually fell before the Supreme Court due to a lawsuit by a coalition formed of several groups, including the aforementioned League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

Later special sessions throughout 2015 proved fruitless, which brought the case back to the State’s highest court.

Republicans currently hold 17 of the 27 US House seats in Florida or 63 pecent. In comparison with the 2012 election results, Republican candidates received 51 percent of all the votes cast throughout the state in House races.

by Trent Townsend

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