Judge sends districts back to the drawing board

07/17/2014 7:12 PM

07/17/2014 7:13 PM

Decisions regarding redistricting are moving fast, but maybe not fast enough. In about a week’s time, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the Florida Legislature illegally drew congressional districts, legislative leaders decided not to appeal the decision and the coalition that won the suit has requested an expedited hearing to determine the remedy and the timing.

To refresh your memories, voters adopted the Fair Districts Amendments with 63 percent of the vote to force the Legislature, which draws the boundaries for legislative districts, to do so without regard to incumbency protection, gerrymandering or benefit to one party over the other.

Not surprisingly, Republicans, in the majority, were mostly opposed to the Fair Districts Amendments while the minority Democratic Party was primarily in favor.

There were a few Republican colleagues who joined me in openly supporting them.

The first test of the Legislature’s compliance with Fair Districts came with the redistricting process prior to the 2012 elections. A coalition of voting-rights advocates, led by the League of Women Voters, didn’t like what it saw and sued the Legislature to challenge its congressional maps.

During the trial there was widespread amnesia, deleted electronic records and surprise revelations. The tortured legal path included every conceivable roadblock. The Legislature effectively used the appellate process to slow down progress and to keep evidence from public view. They were unsuccessful in keeping certain evidence from being introduced, but managed to keep it from the news media and, in turn, us, the public.

Judge Lewis issued a scathing opinion blasting the political consultants for making “a mockery of the Legislature’s transparent and open process of redistricting” while “going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”

His ruling concluded that two of the districts would have to be redrawn — the sprawling minority-packed 5th to Orlando and the Orlando-based 10th appendage.

Any attempt to fix these two districts will have a domino effect on the surrounding districts, as they all must represent roughly the same number of people. By my estimation, it will affect anywhere from 10 to 15 of the state’s 27 congressional districts.

While many political pundits predicted the Legislature would appeal the decision, I was not surprised that it decided not to appeal. It should be noted that legislative leaders waited until after the overseas absentee ballots, intended primarily for the military, were mailed. By federal law, the ballots are required to go out 40-something days prior to the Aug. 26 primary election.

The Legislature made a smart decision not to appeal. The appeals would cost more, prolong the negative news cycle and, ultimately, result in the same outcome. Considering tax dollars were used to defend the legislative process and party money was used to defend the political consultants and operatives — who were not supposed to be involved in the process — it was a good move fiscally and politically. I suspect Florida taxpayers are not going to be happy when they see the tab.

Next comes the legal remedy. Who will draw the new lines and when will they take effect? Judge Lewis has wide latitude concerning who will make the changes and when. He could send it back to the Legislature, do it himself or appoint a committee.

Both sides make good arguments as to the timing. The plaintiffs argue that since the districts are unconstitutional, they should be fixed and become effective immediately. The legislative leaders contend any change at this late stage would cause “chaos and confusion.”

It would push back, at a minimum, the primary election date and reopen the qualifying period for candidates after new districts are drawn. New absentee ballots would have to be printed and mailed. Realistically, it would be a very heavy lift to make the changes in time for this year’s elections. The Legislature may have lost in court, but the stalling tactics were enough to hand it a partial victory — changes will likely be delayed until 2016.

While we wait to see how this ends, there’s one more chapter to the redistricting saga: The Florida Senate maps are also being challenged. Court date not yet set.

Stay tuned.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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