Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Friday gave tentative approval to a new congressional redistricting map that has the potential to unseat at least three incumbent congressional candidates and opens the doors for others to enter the fray.
Lewis rejected the Florida Legislature’s third attempt at redrawing its congressional districts and recommended a map proposed by the challengers to the Florida Supreme Court for its final review. His ruling adopted the bulk of the map approved by lawmakers in the northern and central portions of the state but specifically rejected the proposed boundaries for District 26 in Miami-Dade County, now held by Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
The challengers, a coalition of League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals, agreed with the Legislature’s configuration of 20 of the 27 districts proposed in a staff-drawn base map but asked the court to adopt their changes to the remaining districts. Lewis agreed.
“The Legislature has thus not met its burden of justifying the proposed versions of Districts 20 through 27,” he wrote in a 19-page ruling. He said that a map drawn by the challengers showed no evidence of being drawn with partisan intent and “best complies with the directions” set out by the Florida Supreme Court in July.
“I therefore recommend its adoption,” he said.
The recommendation will next go to the Florida Supreme Court, which must review the maps, including the court testimony and record, and decide what will be the final boundaries for the 2016 election cycle. On Friday, the court gave the parties until Oct. 27 to respond to Lewis’ ruling.
Lawmakers were handed an unprecedented set of directives in July when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the congressional boundaries used in the 2012 and 2014 elections were invalid because lawmakers had allowed improper interference by political operatives and created congressional districts that illegally favored incumbents and political parties. The court gave them specific guidelines for redrawing eight districts and ordered Lewis to review their work and make a recommendation by Oct. 17.
When lawmakers tried and failed to resolve their differences in an August special session, the court threw it back to Lewis, who had been supervising the case that has cost taxpayers more than $8 million over the last 3 1/2 years. He conducted a three-day hearing.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, noted that the map was not yet final but said the challengers’ map was “essentially the House map.”
Redistricting Committee Chairman Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, raised questions about the court’s decision saying in a Tweet that the court “declares different standard of intent for the legislature than they do for themselves. Justice depends on consistent standards.”
But David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause which successfully challenged the districts used in the 2012 and 2014 elections as a violation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution, called the decision “another great victory for the people of Florida and for restoration of representative democracy.”
Lewis concluded that he did “not find from the evidence that the staff map drawers had a conscious intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.” But he said “I remain convinced” the best way to determine if there had been improper partisan intent was to explore the reasons for drawing districts that comply with the other standards, such as geographical compactness.
To that point, he criticized the “very minimalist approach” lawmakers used to rectify the flaws in Miami-Dade’s Districts 26 and 27 as something that “does concern me.”
In its July 9 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to keep the city of Homestead whole, and the Legislature’s solution was to create a district that performed better for Republicans by removing the black communities of Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates and West Perrine from District 26 into the neighboring District 27, now held by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The House and Senate argued that the only way to avoid reducing the ability of Hispanics to elect their own candidate was to leave the district more Republican-leaning as they have proposed. But Lewis rejected that argument, noting that “Hispanics have consistently elected the candidate of their choice” in the region.
He also rejected Florida International University Professor Dario Moreno’s testimony that the district as proposed by the challengers will “lock out” Hispanic voters.
“His testimony was long on pure opinion based on experience and short on systematic, scientific analysis of accepted statistical data,” Lewis wrote.
The ruling not only will mean new boundaries for Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo, it shuffles the landscape for legislators in the central and northern parts of the state. The map as recommended by Lewis leaves three sitting members of Congress in precarious re-election situations and it resolves a dispute between the House and Senate over how to handle Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.
Lewis adopted the configuration initially drawn by staff and favored by the House in which everyone in eastern Hillsborough County south of the ✔Alafia River would change their current members of Congress. Instead of being split between Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor and Okeechobee Republican Tom Rooney, the area would be represented by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican.
In Sarasota County, half of the county would lose Buchanan as their member of Congress. Northern Sarasota County would remain in Buchanan’s 16th District. But areas of southern Sarasota County, including Venice and North Port, would shift into the newly configured 17th Congressional District held by Rooney.
Lewis also rejected the argument by Senate leaders that Hillsborough was a “donor county,” but he noted the Senate alternative plan “makes no similar effort to address the ‘donor’ status of other counties in the map, and it exacerbated the ‘donor’ status of Orange County.”
The plan also rejects the proposal to keep all of Sarasota in one county and puts most of eastern Hillsborough into the 15th Congressional District, represented now by Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross.
In Tampa Bay, the map merges most of Pinellas County into Congressional District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist’s home. Crist is expected to announce soon that he is running for Congress.
And the district now held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, will become significantly more Democratic. Jolly has announced he will not seek re-election but will run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Democrat from Tallahassee, will also see her current District 2 become significantly more Republican while her home base will become part of the newly-drawn minority-majority District 5, currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
In Central Florida, the changes will move the African-American minority-majority District 5 out of the region and into North Florida, as required by the Supreme Court. That configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.
But Lewis noted that “he had no evidence” to conclude that the sprawling district could be drawn to be more compact “without adversely affecting minority voting rights.”
In a statement, Brown said she opposed the ruling and called it a “blatant” attempt to “disenfranchise minority voters in Congressional District 5.’ She said she would file a federal lawsuit alleging the proposed map violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The configuration approved by Lewis also dismantles the current District 10 held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, and creates a Hispanic, Democrat-dominated seat that Webster acknowledges he could not win. Webster, who is campaigning to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has said he will challenge the configuration if it becomes final.
The recommended map also keeps Hendry County whole and keeps District 20 an African-American majority-minority district that stretches into Miramar, now held by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. It also differs from the Legislature’s maps by not splitting six cities in Districts 21 and 22, held by U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, but now puts their homes into the same district.
Lewis also chastised lawmakers for trying only one configuration of Districts 26 and 27 in order to keep Homestead whole.
“The map drawers and their bosses seemed uninterested in exploring other possible configurations to see if these districts could be drawn more compact and reduce county and city splits,” he wrote. “I would think the Legislature would have anticipated questions about improving tier two compliance and have been prepared to respond to such questions by saying they had explored several possibilities ...”
Ros-Lehtinen responded to the approved map in a statement: “Lines or no lines, I work hard for South Florida every day because I know that our strength lies in unity. No matter whose congressional district you’re in, I’m honored to share my vision for the future with all South Floridians.”
Lewis also rejected the suggestion that the plaintiffs were acting politically when they pointed out the flaws in the House and Senate maps. He noted that lawmakers did not want to respond to the criticism, for fear of being accused of political favoritism.
“I understand the dilemma faced by the Legislature in that situation,” Lewis wrote. “If it has drawn the map without regard to political performance, then it would be improper for it to ‘correct’ the political effect of the map in certain districts when someone complains.
“But if a citizen cannot point out what appears to them to be political gerrymandering in certain districts, without the Legislature shutting down any further consideration of those districts ... it is difficult to see how public participation in the process could ever effectively occur.”
Tampa Bay Times writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.