Florida Court Decries Republican Gerrymandering

     TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court sharpened its stick to skewer lawmakers for gerrymandering voting districts to favor Republicans.
     Gerrymandering, the manipulation of district boundaries to give a political party some advantage, has been illegal in Florida since the 2010 passage of the Fair Districts Amendment.
     Two groups – among them individual voters , the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause – cited these changes in filing suit over a 2012 map of the state’s 27 congressional districts.
     After consolidating the “first-of-its-kind” challenge, the Leon County Circuit Court found that unconstitutional intent favoring the Republicans had “taint[ed]” the redistricting process.
     The Florida Supreme Court affirmed 5-2 last week, but went a step further in ordering legislators to redraw eight districts, as well as any of the 14 districts bordering those eight if their borders are affected by the redrawing.
     “We emphasize the time-sensitive nature of these proceedings, with candidate qualifying for the 2016 congressional elections now less than a year away, and make clear that we take seriously our obligation to provide certainty to candidates and voters regarding the legality of the state’s congressional districts,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority Thursday. “Upon the completion of the redrawing of the map, the trial court shall hold a hearing where both sides shall have an opportunity to present their arguments and any evidence for or against the redrawn map, and the trial court shall then enter an order either recommending approval or disapproval of the redrawn map.”
     Candidates must file during the first week of May 2016 to qualify for the ballot.
     The 110-page majority opinion chastises the Republican-led legislature for drawing the maps behind the scenes.
     “The Legislature itself proclaimed that it would conduct the most open and transparent redistricting process in the history of the state, and then made important decisions, affecting numerous districts in the enacted map, outside the purview of public scrutiny,” Pariente, who was appointed a Democratic governor, wrote.
     After pushing for public access to the redrawing process, the majority said it has “every confidence that the Legislature, given this guidance, will conduct itself in a manner that will fulfill the purpose of the Fair Districts Amendment, including the need for transparency and neutrality in drawing the state’s congressional districts.”
     Among those areas that the Legislature must redraw are districts held by Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel. It will affect Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Jolly.
     The ruling comes just a week after and makes specific mention of the June 30 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding an independent commission that Arizona voters created to oversee nonpartisan redistricting.
     Noting that the Florida Legislature had challenged the constitutionality of the Fair Districts Amendment, Pariente cited the Supreme Court’s finding that neither the “Elections Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, nor federal law, “prohibits the people of a state, through the citizen initiative process, from directing the way in which its congressional district boundaries are drawn.”
     The Florida Supreme Court has more Republican-appointed justices than it does Republican.
     In addition to the Democrat-appointed Justice R. Fred Lewis, Pariente’s opinion was joined by Justice Peggy Quince, Florida’s first and only justice appointed simultaneously by more than one governor.
     Three governors were involved in Quince’s appointment, which was set to begin when the Republican Gov. Jeb Bush succeeded the Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles in office. Chiles died in office a few days after working out a deal with Bush to jointly announce Quince’s appointment, and the task fell to Quince’s temporary successor Gov. Buddy MacKay.
     Two Republican appointees joined the majority, and the court’s remaining two Republicans dissented.
     “The majority’s decision to reverse the circuit court and to invalidate numerous districts in the remedial congressional district plan adopted by the Legislature involves an extreme distortion of the appellate process deployed toeffect a serious violation of the separation of powers,” Justice Charles Canady wrote, joined by Justice Ricky Polston.
     Earlier this year, a north Florida county filed suit after finding that legislators included the population of a state prison to allegedly dilute the political strength of actual county residents.

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