(CN) - After four years of litigation and millions of taxpayer-dollars spent, a divided Florida Supreme Court appears to have finally settled the controversy over the state's congressional district map.
In a 5-2 decision, the justices decided on a map favored by the voter rights groups who sued the state Legislature under the Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution.
That amendment, approved by voters in 2010, says districts "may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party."
In addition, the districts "must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries."
"Our opinion today -- the eighth concerning legislative or congressional apportionment during this decade since the adoption of the landmark Fair Districts Amendment -- should bring much needed finality to litigation concerning this state's congressional redistricting that has now spanned nearly four years in state courts," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.
While most of Florida's 27 districts did not change significantly, the new map could cause some incumbents to lose their seats and create some drama-filled election contests next year.
For instance, the new Congressional District 13, covering a portion of the Tampa Bay area, will see an influx of new Democratic constituents.
This, in theory, bodes well for former Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, who has already announced he will run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican.
Jolly has already announced plans to run instead for the U.S. Senate.
It now appears U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, representing central Florida, while lose his seat, as will U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who represents the Tallahassee area.
The map also transforms two Miami-Dade districts, making them solidly Latino, while merging two majority Democratic Palm Beach districts into one, leaving U.S. Rep Ted Deutch without a seat.
One change could spur new legal challenges. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who holds Jacksonville-area District 5, saw the biggest boundary changes. Previously, her majority African-American district twisted between five counties from Jacksonville to Orlando. Now, the district moves from Jacksonville west along the Florida Panhandle.
Brown has threatened a federal lawsuit under the Voter Rights Act, contending the new boundaries limit minority representation. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens may join that lawsuit after decrying the new map's exclusion of the district's financial district and cultural attractions.
But in a concurring opinion, Justice James Perry sought to allay concerns like those of U.S. Rep. Brown, stating that the plan increases the number of districts where minorities can elect representatives.
"The efforts to paint this process as partisan or invoke the antebellum period are an unjustified attack on the integrity of our judicial system," he wrote. "Had those who were elected by the people heeded their electorate, our involvement would never have been required ... The boundaries may have changed, but the purpose and goal of the Voting Rights Act and Florida's Fair Districts Amendment have been better met under this plan."
Justice Charles Canady agreed with part of the majority opinion but not the map ultimately chosen. Justice Ricky Polston dissented completely.
"The map the trial court recommended and the majority adopts was drawn by a Democratic consulting firm," Polston wrote. "Although the majority invalidated a prior plan lawfully enacted by Florida's elected legislators on the basis of Republican operatives' attempts to influence the legislative mapmaking process, it judicially adopts a remedial plan drawn entirely by Democratic operatives."
"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," he added.
Getting to a new map has proved to be a long process.
In 2012, after the most recent census, the Legislature completed a new map, but news organizations and voter rights groups discovered lawmakers held secret meetings with political operatives to essentially gerrymander the districts.
Several groups, spearheaded by the Florida League of Women Voters, brought a lawsuit against the legislature contending eight Congressional districts were unconstitutional under the Fair Districts amendment.
In 2014, Terry Lewis of the Second Judicial Circuit Court approved a second map. But the voters' rights groups did not think that judgment went far enough and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
The court then ordered all sides to submit maps by August. The Florida House and Senate held special sessions, but still could not come into agreement.
"We did not anticipate, however, that the Legislature would be unable to
agree on a final remedial redistricting plan," Justice Pariente wrote. "Although each legislative chamber passed a plan, the Legislature deadlocked, failing to enact a remedial plan in a special session held for that purpose."
So, the court approved one of the maps earlier chosen by Circuit Judge Lewis and favored by the plaintiffs.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Pamela Goodman praised the decision.
"There are actions that become milestones in the history of a state and the Florida Supreme Court ruling today is one of those decisions that future generations will study and quote," she said in a statement after the ruling.
This decision has portents for state politics as well. The Florida League of Women Voters also filed a lawsuit against the Florida state Legislature over the Fair Districts amendment. Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds is expected to rule in that case later this month.
The redistricting process starts anew in 2020.
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