TALLAHASSEE — A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that next year’s congressional elections should go forward under a map proposed by voting-rights organizations, raising the prospect of ending a nearly four-year legal and political battle over the state’s U.S. House districts.
But opponents of the redistricting plan were already preparing to take the fight to federal court, and a different challenge dealing with state Senate lines is ongoing, leading to the possibility that the once-a-decade redistricting process that began in 2011 could continue to drag on.
The 5-2 Supreme Court ruling followed the broad outlines of most of the decisions handed down in a long line of cases after Floridians voted overwhelmingly to approve the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments in 2010. The court’s more-liberal majority, led by Justice Barbara Pariente, sided with the voting-rights organizations against the Legislature’s Republican majority. Two more-conservative justices backed lawmakers.
“The court has set a really powerful precedent which is sure to forever change the practice of drawing congressional district lines that favor incumbents and whichever political party happens to be in the majority,” said Peter Butzin, chairman of Common Cause Florida, one of the groups that challenged a congressional redistricting plan approved in 2012 and tweaked in 2014.
Republican lawmakers, who have lost a string of redistricting decisions, seemed resigned. Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters Wednesday that he had expected the ruling.
“It’s not a mystery as to where the Supreme Court has been throughout this litigation,” he said.
By going with a map proposed by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Florida, and recommended by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, justices turned away three plans proposed by the Legislature following an unsuccessful special session in August. That special session was called after a July ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down the current version of the map for violating the Fair Districts standards.
In her ruling, Pariente rejected the Legislature’s arguments that the maps put forward by the voting-rights groups were drawn with partisan intent by a Democratic consultant; that it was unfair to let the organizations propose their plans during the lawsuit, and not the special session; and that proposed districts drawn by either the House or Senate did enough to meet the court’s July ruling.
She pointedly criticized lawmakers for their handling of an aspect of the July ruling requiring lawmakers to consolidate the city of Homestead into one district. In the earlier decision, justices found that the city was split between two districts to help the Republican Party.
Ultimately, legislative aides charged with drawing a map to fix problems identified by the Supreme Court considered two possible solutions. Each solution would have put Homestead in a different district. Lawmakers considered just one of those ideas during the special session and rejected an amendment that offered another potential arrangement of the districts.
As a result of the Legislature’s decisions, a district represented by GOP Congressman Carlos Curbelo would have become more Republican. While the Legislature’s special session collapsed over a disagreement on districts in the Interstate 4 corridor, the House and Senate agreed on the arrangement of the South Florida districts.
The handling of those districts was “indicative” of the Legislature’s failure to prove that its changes to the districts were the best way to answer the court’s ruling, Pariente wrote.
“This is particularly true where it is clear that the ‘cure’ the Legislature chose for the improper partisan intent that caused the court to require these districts to be redrawn in the first place actually improves the Republican performance of the districts,” she wrote.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Ricky Polston blasted the majority for adopting a plan admittedly written by an employee of a Democratic consulting firm — after initially striking down the congressional plan drawn in 2012 because GOP operatives managed to influence it.
“Not only is this result ironic, it is an unconstitutional violation of the Fair Districts Amendment (as interpreted previously by the majority) and the separation of powers,” Polston wrote.
Also, dissenting Justice Charles Canady said the court had been inconsistent in the way it handled the lawsuit. Canady said the majority was striking down the redrawn districts without proving that they created new constitutional violations.
“The court thus has effectively imposed a morphing remedy, and the Legislature has confronted the confounding challenge of hitting a target that has been moved after the House and Senate have acted,” he wrote.
Despite Pariente’s confidence that the ruling “should bring much needed finality to litigation concerning this state’s congressional redistricting,” the battle is now likely to move to federal court. Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown has already filed a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act to undo changes to her district.
Brown argues that the changes to her district, which would run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west under the new plan, would not allow African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice — though President Barack Obama carried the revamped district by more than 28 points in 2012. Brown’s district has stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando, an arrangement the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in July.
“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court of the state of Florida is just what I expected because the entire process has been tainted from the very beginning,” said Brown, an African-American. “Beyond a doubt, today’s ruling and the proposed congressional map is a direct attack on minority voters and a clear example of voter retrogression and disenfranchisement.”
The congresswoman’s persistent criticism of the court drew a rebuke, though not by name, from one of the justices after Brown compared the changes in her district to slavery during a press conference last month.
“The efforts to paint this process as partisan or invoke the antebellum period are an unjustified attack on the integrity of our judicial system,” wrote Justice James E.C. Perry, an African-American, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince, the only other black justice. ” … Originally, the right to vote was limited to white male landowners. Others had to fight and die for the privilege to be extended to them. It is an insult to their struggle for politicians to now use that sacrifice for personal benefit.”
The ruling could also affect a circuit-court hearing, set to begin Dec. 14, to help select a map for the state’s Senate districts. The current lines for the 40-member chamber were set aside in a legal settlement between the Legislature and the voting-rights groups after the Supreme Court’s July decision to strike down the current congressional plan.
David King, an attorney for the voting-rights groups, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the newest Supreme Court ruling could “perhaps very much streamline the Senate case.”