FL Supremes To Break Redistricting Deadlock

Aug 28, 2015

Florida's Supreme Court is deliberating over how to proceed with the state's congressional map.
Credit Nick Evans

Politicians and activists are taking the fight for Florida’s congressional borders to court.  Again.  The courts are weighing whether to take over or leave the next draft in the hands of lawmakers.

With Florida’s congressional borders still in limbo, and the parties to the case still at odds—in fact more divided than they’ve ever been, it’s getting pretty easy to think, “Ok, so what else is new?” 

But most probably don’t realize just how right they are.

This is Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida says, “We’ve had numerous examples of the courts getting involved in redistricting in Florida—several quite significant.”

“So, ’62, 72, 92, 2002, and now,” Jewett rattles off, “we’ve had court intervention either at the federal or state level and sometimes both.”

And it’s not just Florida’s Legislature having problems with congressional districts.  In the most recent round of reapportionment, courts have altered maps in nine different states.  That failure rate has some, like Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Hollywood), calling for an independent redistricting commission. 

“It’s become very obvious to anyone paying any attention whatsoever that the folks one floor above us cannot—cannot do this,” Jenne says.  “They just can’t do this.”

But barring some pretty drastic changes in state government there’s virtually no chance of that kind of measure catching on in the Legislature.  Despite the bitterness and distrust that exists between Republican majorities in Florida’s House and Senate, they absolutely agree reapportionment is their prerogative. 

It’s the basis for Rep. Mike Hill’s (R-Pensacola) repeated calls for rejecting the Supreme Court ruling that sent lawmakers into special session to revise eight districts.  His idea garnered little support among the membership, but many Republicans agree the ruling violates the separation of powers principle.

After grumbling about the burden of Florida’s fair districts amendment, majorities in the House and Senate approved a map—just not the same one as the other chamber.  Ironically, Jewett says the push for that amendment began as a plan for a redistricting commission.

“Their first attempt to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot was to have a bipartisan commission draw the lines,” Jewett says. “They actually gathered signatures for that, and they gathered enough to trigger Florida Supreme Court review.”

Jewett explains the Court tossed the amendment because it violated the single subject provision and the ballot summary was misleading.  But if Florida wants a commission—whether independent, non-partisan or bi-partisan—the road runs through the ballot box, and there are no active measures to that effect. 

As it stands now, the borders are back in the justice’s hands.  The House wants 60 more days so all parties can submit proposals at the circuit court level.  What’s more, they want the court to acknowledge the map is only provisional, and lawmakers can revise the lines at will.  The Senate still wants to bargain—submitting a map that recedes from some but not all of its agreed-upon changes.  But the voting rights groups that brought the case say the Legislature struck out, and the Supreme Court is on deck.