Voter Rights Win Big as Florida Court Rules Against GOP Gerrymandering

The Florida Supreme Court found that Republicans in the state legislature intentionally created new voting boundaries for eight districts to give favor to their own party. (Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/flickr/cc)

Voter Rights Win Big as Florida Court Rules Against GOP Gerrymandering

Voting rights advocates say ruling sets a precedent for other states in redistricting battles

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the state legislature's redistricting plans ahead of next year's U.S. presidential election are tainted by "unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and its incumbents" and ordered new congressional districts to be redrawn within 100 days.

In a 5-2 decision (pdf), the court found the GOP's redestricting process in 2012 violated the the state's Fair District amendment, enacted two years earlier to safeguard against legislatures redrawing congressional boundaries to give favor to a political party--a process known as gerrymandering.

The judges affirmed a previous ruling by a trial court, which found that Republican "operatives" and political consultants "did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process."

Eight out of Florida's 27 congressional districts will be redrawn.

Voting rights activists saw the ruling as a big win.

"This was a complete victory for the people of Florida who passed the Fair District amendment and sought fair representation where the Legislature didn't pick their voters," said David King, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, which included the Florida League of Women Voters and Florida Common Cause. "The Supreme Court accepted every challenge we made and ordered the Legislature to do it over."

The court also chastised the Republican-led legislature for its secretive measures in creating the map, which--despite repeated vows to be transparent--included private planning sessions and destruction of important documents and emails.
Court ruling states that Republican lawmakers in Florida "did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process."

As Common Cause explained after Thursday's ruling:

Trial testimony last year unearthed the use of a false name to submit a map nearly identical to one that had been drawn earlier by political consultants with close ties to legislators, along with evidence of secret strategy meetings between consultants and legislative staff. The trial court identified two districts as unconstitutional, including the 5th Congressional District, which snakes nearly 200 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando. This district captures and packs far flung African-American communities to limit those communities' influence on surrounding districts.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Tampa Bay Times called the ruling "historic," adding that it "signaled [the court's] deep distrust of lawmakers."

Thursday's decision brings an end to a case that has been in the courts for the past three years. "This has been a long, hard battle against what has been unbelievable devious political scheming and egregious behavior of our politicians," said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

In 2012, the trial court had found that the legislature's map had "made a mockery" of anti-gerrymandering safeguards in the state's constitution.

Goodman told the New York Times, "We had no idea of the nontransparent and shameful behavior of our legislators."

"This was the fox guarding the henhouse. In gerrymandered states, lawmakers end up choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their legislators," Goodman said, adding that the ruling "sets a precedent for many states across the country who are dealing with gerrymandered districts."

The state court decision follows a similar anti-gerrymandering ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court last month, in which the justices voted 5-4 to uphold an Arizona ballot initiative that took redistricting power away from elected politicians and gave it to a nonpartisan commission.

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