Judge Rules Florida’s Congressional Redistricting Process Violated the Florida Constitution

Judge Rules Florida’s Congressional Redistricting Process Violated the Florida Constitution

I read both of my metro area’s major daily papers every day . . . more or less. There are sections I almost never read, and I don’t get through all of the sections I do read every day. But rare is the day that I’m not at least reasonably familiar with the stories of the day, particularly those of political import.

Lately, I’ve taken to reading the Tampa Tribune first. This isn’t because it is better (or worse) than the Tampa Bay Times. It does have to do with certain kinds of local coverage that I find somewhat more often in its pages.

So there I was, sipping my morning tea and working my way through the B section of the paper when this headline jumped off of page B5:

Fla. congressional districts drawn illegally, judge rules  (that’s the headline that appeared in the print edition; TBO.com, linked above, has a slightly different headline).

My immediate reaction was shock . . . not at the result (I’ve written about the apparent problems with the Congressional redistricting process in light of the Fair Districts amendment), but at the fact that it was deep inside the B section.

This, I thought, is front page news! What is it doing buried back here?

In fairness, B5 in today’s Tribune is captioned Florida News, and certainly this is news from the state. But other Florida news was on Page A1. To my way of thinking, a judicial decision that could help recast not only the Congressional delegation from Florida, but the nature of representation in Florida, ought to have gotten as much attention as ethics charges and countercharges filed by gubernatorial surrogates  (which, in its way, is pretty old news . . . happens all the time, just more aggressively this season).

So I picked up the Tampa Bay Times:

Map illegal, court says shouted the headline on the front page, on the right, just above the fold.

That’s more like it, I thought.

Then, just for grins, I went to the Miami Herald’s digital version of its print edition:

Judge: Florida’s congressional map is invalid. Front page, below the fold, but still A1. (As with the Tribune, the link here is to the online story, not the digital paper, and the headline is slightly different.)

There’s little doubt that the Florida House and Senate will appeal this decision to the state Supreme Court. So one could argue that this decision means nothing. It’s just a step toward final resolution, a resolution which remains uncertain and some distance off. Mark it down for “Florida News” and bury it inside the paper for those who seek it to find it.

But I think that it is front page news, whatever happens next.

In this case, the judge had to apply the standards set by the Fair Districts amendment we, the voters, added to our state constitution in 2010. The purpose of that amendment (and its companion that regulates the drawing of state legislative districts) was to break the districting process free of the partisan headlock that had created a legislature that was overwhelmingly Republican in a state that is nominally Democratic by registration and deeply purple in presidential politics.

(Let me quickly note here that partisan gaming of legislative district maps is a bi-partisan sport. It just so happens that, here in Florida, the Republican Party has been the one with the greatest capacity to play the game. So I’m not picking on Republicans versus Democrats; I’m dealing with the political realities in Florida.)

In order to be effective, the amendments addressed intent. Which meant that any challenge to a redistricting process had to reach the question of intent.

The state legislature patently erred with the original state senate map they adopted. The advantage to the party and to specific legislators was clear on its face, and the Florida Supreme Court rejected it.

But legislators, legislative staff, and the various consultants and lobbyists who have such a strong personal interest in the composition of legislative districts can be much more subtle than that. And, at least in the opinion rendered by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, they were.

Which is why this case is important.

Because Judge Lewis insisted that evidence that was germane to determining legislative intent was admissible. He went to extraordinary lengths to protect claims of “trade secrets” made by GOP political consultant Pat Bainter while admitting Bainter’s relevant (and apparently damning) information into the courtroom.

What we are left with, as long as the state Supreme Court doesn’t determine that Judge Lewis went too far in admitting evidence into his courtroom, is that these amendments have real teeth.

Floridians sought a more open, honest and fair process by which legislative districts would be drawn. The amendments we passed made clear that intent mattered.

Judge Lewis heard us. And, at least for now, so has our legislature.