Supreme Court signs off on congressional districts

(Ap photo by Chris O'Meara)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a lower court's ruling about the state's congressional districts, ending at least one phase of a nearly four-year legal battle over the map.

The ruling means a set of districts in South Florida crafted by a coalition of voting-rights groups will be used in the map over the next three elections.

Two congresswomen vowed to take the fight to the federal courts after their districts were largely ignored during oral arguments before the state Supreme Court, raising the prospect of more uncertainty in the nearly four-year saga about how to redraw the state's political boundaries under a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

"There is no justice in this courthouse," said Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown in a fiery speech after the hearing. "I will be going to the federal courthouse, because there is no justice and there will be no peace. We'll go all the way to the United States Supreme Court."

The more-subdued oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court focused on whether justices should stick with a map drawn by voting-rights groups and recommended by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. Lewis approved the plan over separate submissions from the House and the Senate, which failed to agree on a map during a special session in August.

The Supreme Court in July struck down the current congressional districts for violating the "Fair Districts" standards approved by voters in 2010. That led to the failed special session and, ultimately, to Lewis recommending the new map to justices.

During Tuesday's hearing, which lasted less than an hour, Justice Barbara Pariente pressed a lawyer for the Legislature on how lawmakers decided to craft two South Florida districts that were struck down by the court in July.

The court's opinion faulted the Legislature's initial plan, which was approved in 2012 and tweaked in 2014, for dividing the city of Homestead between two districts in an apparent effort to help Republicans Party in one of the seats.

Pariente, who has been a leading voice in the court's redistricting opinions, noted that a new legislative proposal united the city but actually made the GOP's performance in one of the districts stronger.

"It wasn't just that Homestead was split," she said. "We found an unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party."

But George Meros, a lawyer for the House, argued that the legislative aides who drew the map simply looked at drafts of the map that placed Homestead in either district and chose the one that best followed the "Fair Districts" standards.

"There is no evidence in the record that these map drawers drew that configuration in order to improve Republican performance. They had no idea," Meros said.

Meanwhile, attorney Raoul Cantero -- who represents the Senate -- said the court should accept one of two maps submitted by the upper chamber. Cantero noted that one of the plans would prevent changes to a Southwest Florida district that was not cited in the justices' July opinion.

"This court did not require an entire redo of the map," said Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice. "And so, if we can keep maps the same as they were before without having to redraw them, I think that's a consideration. ... This is not a race to see who can draw the most compact map."

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause have led long-running legal battles against the state's current congressional and Senate districts. Lawmakers also could not agree last week on a new Senate redistricting plan, tossing the issue into the courts.

During Tuesday's arguments on congressional districts, Pariente seized on a point that has been made by frustrated lawmakers -- that while the voting-rights groups sued to overturn the Legislature's original map and submitted their own plans to Lewis, the organizations did not first give lawmakers a chance to consider those maps.

"Didn't you see that the directions in the (Supreme Court) opinion were for those maps to be submitted to the Legislature?" Pariente asked.

But David King, who represented the groups, said that when they tried to point out problems with the South Florida districts in a letter written during the session, the Legislature accused the organizations of trying to favor Democrats in violation of Fair Districts.

"They pummeled us with that letter," King said. "So, at that point, it didn't seem to make much sense to try to send them a map which we ultimately developed during the time between the end of the session and the time we had to file it in the trial court. ... They knew what our complaint was about (the districts), and they chose to ignore it."

Outside the courtroom, Brown and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson railed against changes to their districts in the plan recommended by Lewis. Brown fiercely denounced the Supreme Court, continuing to insist that the new version of her district -- which President Barack Obama carried by more than 28 points in 2012 -- would not elect an African-American Democrat.

The new version would go from Jacksonville to the Tallahassee area, a substantial change from the current configuration that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando.

"What has happened is that it is clear that you all think that slavery still exists and we can just take those slaves and put them in one area and forget about the people who didn't have representation for 129 years," Brown said. "That's OK. They don't need representation. ... You think that you can just take us like we're slaves and move the slave boundaries up north."

Brown said she would revive a federal challenge to the districts under the Voting Rights Act. Brown's lawsuit, in the Northern District of Florida, has been stayed while both sides wait on the decision from the Florida justices. Wilson, who is from Miami, said she would join Brown's suit.

Wilson complained about the decision to draw facilities like PortMiami and Jackson Memorial Hospital out of her district, saying it would hurt her ability to advocate for her constituents at those facilities. She underscored the fact that it would not change the number of people in the district.

"These economic engines have no voter-age population," Wilson said. "There are no Democrats living there. There are no Republicans living there. It's land mass. ... Why push us back into apartheid? That's what it looks like."