TALLAHASSEE —Democrats and a coalition that backed new anti-gerrymandering standards have urged a judge to summarily reject the Republican-led Legislature’s redistricting map for Florida’s 27 congressional districts.
Lawyers for the state, though, argued that Circuit Judge Terry Lewis should hold a full-blown trial with witnesses and testimony, which would delay a decision and increase the chances that potential court-ordered revisions would have to wait until after this year’s elections.
Lewis said he was aware of the time constraints and would try to rule quickly but wanted to make sure he addresses all issues.
Lawyers for the Florida Democratic Party, some individual citizens and the coalition argued on April 18 that the map violates the Fair Districts standards that voters adopted in 2010 covering legislative and congressional redistricting voters adopted in 2010.
They alleged that lawmakers used a provision requiring them to protect minority voting rights as a pretext to violate other standards by intentionally favoring incumbents and Republicans and in some cases drawing “grotesque” non-compact districts that fail to follow geographic and political boundaries.
Coalition lawyer Paul Smith said the case is about the rights of citizens, not politicians.
“They are the rights of the voters, the losers in this (legislative) process,” Smith said.
The Fair Districts coalition consists of the League of Women Voters of Florida, National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause.
If the Legislature’s map is used for this year’s election because the courts haven’t resolved the case in time, Smith said, that would give an advantage to the winners that would reverberate for years even if the map ultimately is thrown out.
It is even more gerrymandered that the current version, said Florida Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias. Republicans now have a 19-6 majority in Florida’s House delegation although Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration. Democratic President Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 yet carried only 10 of the state’s 25 congressional districts.
The new map has two more seats due to population growth but a functional analysis shows Obama still would have won just 10 of the 27 new districts, Elias said.
Smith and Elias said Lewis should follow a “road map” the Florida Supreme Court already has drawn. The justices interpreted the Fair Districts standards for the first time in a ruling that unanimously affirmed a new Florida House map but, in a 5-2 vote, invalidated a plan lawmakers drew for the state Senate.
Florida House lawyer George Meros argued the congressional case has different constitutional underpinnings so Lewis must give deference to the Legislature unless the opponents can prove the map is unconstitutional “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Supreme Court used a lesser standard of proof — the preponderance of evidence — in deciding the legislative redistricting case.
Much of the argument focused on an increase in voting-age blacks from slightly under 50 percent to just over that level for a seat currently held by Rep. Corrine Brown, a black Democrat from Jacksonville. Meros said it was done to ensure that minority voters can continue to elect a candidate of their choice, leaving the district little changed from its current configuration, meandering from Jacksonville to Orlando.
Smith said packing it with up to 70 percent Democrats, mostly black, helps the GOP in neighboring districts.
The coalition has submitted an alternative map that would make the district more compact but drop the black voting age population to 34 percent. It also has filed a functional analysis that shows blacks still would be able to elect a candidate of their choice because the district would continue to be majority Democratic and most Democrats would be black.
Meros said the coalition proposal was similar to one that a three-judge federal panel rejected in 1992. That panel included former Judge Joseph Hatchett, now part of the Democrats’ legal team for the current redistricting challenges.
“They are trying to go back to a darker time in our past,” Meros said. He said the opponents want to “spread as many African-Americans out of minority districts into adjoining districts that will elect white Democrats.”
The Supreme Court on Friday heard a similar challenge to the Legislature’s revised Senate map that’s intended to fix the violations the justices found in the original. The same opponents contend the new version still violates Fair Districts. If the justices agree, they can redraw it themselves.
Elias told Lewis he could do the same with assistance from the parties or by appointing a special master if he invalidates the congressional map. He said the Legislature also could meet in special session to redraw the map although the courts cannot order it to do so.
Regardless of how Lewis rules, the case is expected to be appealed.
Department of State lawyer Daniel Nordby supported the Legislature’s argument and reminded Lewis there was only 47 days left until candidate qualifying begins on June 4 for the Aug. 14 primary and Nov. 6 general election.
ON THE NET
Congressional restricting case files: www.clerk.leon.fl.us/index.php?section=205&server=cvweb&page=cvimage/high_profile/index.asp