Florida Supreme Court Throws Out Congressional Map, Orders Battleground Districts Redrawn

The state court ordered the Legislature to redraw eight congressional districts in a Thursday decision, including battlegrounds held by Reps. David Jolly and Carlos Curbelo.

Florida's Supreme Court ruled Thursday morning that the state's congressional map was illegally gerrymandered and ordered the Republican-controlled Legislature to redraw eight congressional districts, including two of the state's most contested battleground seats.

The Legislature will have to redraw districts represented by Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, and Lois Frankel, and Republican Reps. David Jolly, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Lawmakers will have to submit the new map to the state Supreme Court for approval. By necessity, the redraw will affect neighboring districts as well, throwing virtually the entire Florida map into flux.

Jolly and Curbelo are already two of House Democrats' top targets ahead of the 2016 elections. President Obama carried both Republicans' districts in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats hope presidential-year turnout in 2016 will boost their House candidates, too.

Sarah Bascom, a campaign spokeswoman for Jolly, said in a statement that he has always considered his constituency to be the entirety of Pinellas County—encompassing St. Petersburg and its northern suburbs—and "has never concerned himself with where the district lines are drawn throughout the county."

The court did not define a deadline for redistricting but said it has to be finished in time for the 2016 elections. (Read the decision here.)

The court also urged Florida legislators to take a more transparent approach to redistricting than they originally did.

"[I]n order to avoid the problems apparent in this case as a result of many critical decisions on where to draw the lines having been made outside of public view, we encourage the Legislature to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation," the opinion says.

It also urges lawmakers to "provide a mechanism for the challengers and others to submit alternative maps."

Partisan gerrymandering is legal in most states, but it was outlawed in Florida in a 2010 amendment to the state constitution. The court's opinion cited the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling upholding Arizona's independent redistricting commission.

Like those in Arizona, "Florida voters endeavored 'to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative district lines to subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power,'" the opinion says, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in the Arizona case.

Election law professor and blogger Rick Hasen wrote on ElectionLawBlog.org that if not for the Supreme Court's ruling in Arizona, this ruling could have been subject to an appeal on the grounds that only the state Legislature—not the court—had the authority to determine congressional lines.

The case also illustrates the tension between Voting Rights Act requirements meant to protect minorities' electoral influence and gerrymandering laws that prevent minorities from being packed into a single district. In Brown's district, which snakes from Jacksonville to Gainesville to Orlando, state lawmakers told they court they thought they needed to maintain at least a 50 percent majority of African American voters to comply with a Voting Rights Act requirement that certain districts have enough minorities for them to elect the candidate of their choice.

But the court noted that courts have already ruled that African American voters do not need to constitute a full majority of a district in order to elect their favored candidate. In fact, a 2002 case upheld the legality of Brown's district even though the African American voting-age population was only 46 percent.

Brown, however, has publicly opposed cutting African American voters from her district, even if it benefits Democrats elsewhere. If the legislature reduces the number of African American voters in Brown's district and then she loses her reelection bid, she could sue, arguing her loss demonstrates that minorities lost their influence in her district, Hasen told National Journal. In fact, a lawsuit wouldn't be out of the question even before the next election, he said.