DRAWING THE LINES

Filed under FLORIDA, FRONT PAGE, NEWS, POLITICS

Florida’s updated congressional map may make the re-election campaigns of incumbent U.S. Representatives Corrine Brown and Frederica Wilson – and others – more challenging.

BY MARY ELLEN KLAS
MIAMI HERALD / TNS

TALLAHASSEE – Saying it was putting “much needed finality” to Florida’s congressional redistricting process, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday approved a congressional redistricting map nearly five years after lawmakers began the process.

The Florida Supreme Court finally approves a congressional district map, something the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature couldn’t do on its own. (FLORIDA COURIER FILES)

The Florida Supreme Court finally approves a congressional district map, something the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature couldn’t do on its own.  (FLORIDA COURIER FILES)

The 5-2 decision validated the map drawn by the challengers and approved by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis after the Florida Legislature tried and failed to agree to a map in a special redistricting session.

Lewis rejected the Legislature’s third attempt at redrawing Florida’s congressional districts last month and recommended a map proposed by the challengers.

Incumbents uncertain
The map leaves three sitting members of Congress in precarious re-election situations: Gwen Graham, a Democrat from Tallahassee; Dan Webster, a Republican from Winter Garden; and David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores. Jolly has already announced he will not seek re-election but is running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.

The map is now expected to be challenged by at least two members of Congress in federal court as U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, have threatened a lawsuit for restricting the ability of their constituents to elect non-Whites to office.

However, the boundaries are now likely to be those set for the 2016 election.

The impact
In Miami, the map creates new boundaries for Wilson and Miami Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The new District 26, now held by Curbelo, will have a majority of Democrats but will remain a Hispanic majority seat.

151204_front01bThe court describes the new District 27 as one that “sits compactly in central Miami-Dade County, rather than stretching south along the coast to the Miami-Dade-Monroe County line.”

In Palm Beach, the map draws Democrat U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch into the same district.

In Tampa Bay, the map merges most of Pinellas County into Congressional District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist’s home. Crist has announced he is running for Congress.

In Central Florida, the changes will move the African-American minority-majority District 5, the seat currently held by Brown, out of the region and into North Florida. The previous configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.

The ruling also is likely to have a bearing on the pending redistricting challenge over the Senate maps. Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds has scheduled a five-day trial Dec. 14-18 after which he will present a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court.

Pariente opines again
Justice Barbara Pariente authored Wednesday’s opinion, directing her criticism at Justice Charles Canady and Ricky Polston who dissented with the majority of the opinion.

Pariente also authored the landmark ruling in July that said Florida’s 27 congressional districts used in the 2012 and 2014 elections were invalid because lawmakers had allowed improper interference by political operatives in violation of the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution.

In her latest opinion, Pariente rejected Canady’s argument that the decision moves the “goalposts” on the Legislature in its redrawing of the districts.

“The goal has not changed and has always been compliance with the Fair Districts Amendment,” she wrote. “At this stage, after a finding that the 2012 congressional redistricting plan had been drawn with improper intent, the Legislature bears the burden of justifying its redrawn configurations. The Legislature did not escape this burden when it was unable to agree on a plan to enact and subsequently asked all parties to submit alternative plans to the trial court.”

Public input requested
While Canady agreed with part of the decision, Polston disagreed with the entire ruling as adopting a plan drawn by “Democratic operatives” and chastised the court for violating the separation of power clause of the U.S. Constitution.

That is the same argument lawyers for the Legislature are making in opposing the maps proposed by the challengers in the Senate redistricting fight, and the majority opinion specifically countered that claim in the congressional map, noting that there were only eight districts in dispute – all from South Florida – “including two redrawn districts in which Democratic incumbents were actually paired against each other in the same district.”

“From the outset, we have encouraged the public to submit proposed plans that can be evaluated by the objective criteria of the Fair Districts Amendment,” the court ruled.

Protecting voters
The ruling also emphasized that “this case does not pit this Court versus the Legislature, but instead implicates this Court’s responsibility to vindicate ‘the essential right of our citizens to have a fair opportunity to select those who will represent them.’ ”

The court also addressed criticism echoed in the Senate redistricting trial that “the trial court erred in not considering the intent of the drafters” of the alternative map.

“Although the maps themselves were not on trial, their drafters were called to testify during the relinquishment hearing and were subject to cross-examination,” the court said.

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