A coalition of voting rights groups and the Florida Legislature squared off Wednesday over the state’s congressional borders. Nick Evans reports, lawmakers are defending the changes they made in last summer’s special session before the state Supreme Court.
Last August, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis invalidated Florida’s most recent congressional map, drawn after the 2010 census. By the end of the month the Legislature had called a special session, convened, and then passed a new map. But even before the map left the Capitol, complaints started flying.
Former Representative Karen Castor Dentel argued, “Nothing really changed in this process this time around which would restore the integrity called into question the first time around.”
Like many others in the Democratic minority, she felt the new map was a fait accompli. The borders that eventually passed appeared in committee whole and fully-formed. Democrats were left out of drafting and the maps passed largely along party lines. The plaintiff’s attorney John Devaney argues the Legislature’s efforts—minor changes to Districts 5 and 10—fall short of the changes needed. He argues it needs to start from scratch, because the entire redistricting process was tainted.
“It’s quite clear that the discussion doesn’t relate just to District 5 and the evidence demonstrated that the secretive shadow process wasn’t limited to District 5, it applied to the entire map,” Devaney says.
But Justice Canady pushed back.
“Where is there a general finding that this whole map was the result of a partisan intent?” he asked. “Where is that in the order?”
Later, Raoul Cantero, arguing on behalf of the Legislature, built on this idea—but not before reiterating his point the circuit judge shouldn’t have invalidated the map in the first place.
“We don’t agree with what Judge Lewis did as to 5 and 10,” Cantero began, “but his rationale was that the whole Pepper-Riechelderfer communication infected 5 and 10 because those were the districts they were talking about.”
Pepper was an aide to the House Speaker at the time and Reichelderfer was a political consultant—their communications were part of the back-channel dealings the plaintiffs used to bring their case.
Questioning Cantero, Justice Pariente brought the conversation back to the underlying law, the Florida Fair Districts Amendment.
“Aren’t we to look at, really, what the voters wanted,” Pariente says, “which were fair districts so that there weren’t safe seats for Democrats and safe seats for Republicans, but that there really could be meaningful competitive elections?”
Cantero shot back the Constitution doesn’t provide for competitive districts, just that they must not intentionally favor a party or incumbent.
But speaking outside the court, attorney for the plaintiffs, David King had this to say.
“At this point, there hasn’t been any ruling yet that says they’ve got to draw a map with some other standard to make it competitive,” Kind concedes, “but theoretically if you follow the Constitution you’ll get much more competitive districts.”
Central to the dispute is District 5. It’s a long narrow band that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, and in recent years it’s been a poster child for arguments against gerrymandering. But NAACP attorney Allison Riggs joins the Legislature in arguing the district should remain as it is.
“Black voters in this region have a shared history and are politically cohesive as a district. CD 5—then CD 3—was created as a remedy for decades of exclusion for black voters in that region.”
But Devaney and King argue the Legislature has packed minority voters into the district, and shifting its orientation from North South to East West would allow for multiple districts with greater minority representation.
The state Supreme Court doesn’t publish any information about when it plans to release decisions, but in general, most decisions take about six months.