A Florida judge ruled the state’s congressional district map invalid Thursday night, saying it violates constitutional provisions that require fair districts and instead favors Republicans.
In a scathing opinion, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis ruled in Tallahassee that the Legislature’s Republican political consultants had “made a mockery” of the redistricting process, tainting it with “partisan intent.”
Lewis said that the districts, drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature after the 2010 census, flouted voter-passed constitutional amendments intended to eliminate gerrymandering - that is, often-bizarre and irregular lines that make a district safe for one party or the other.
Gerrymandering “has been criticized as allowing, in effect, the representatives to choose their voters instead of vice versa,” he wrote.
Specifically, Lewis found that congressional districts 5 and 10 had been drawn to favor the GOP, and that neighboring districts had been affected as well. Those two districts, and any others affected, will need to be redrawn, he said.
“I find the congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Legislature to be constitutionally invalid,” he wrote. The case goes “to the very foundation of our representative democracy.”
Florida voters passed the so-called Fair Districts Amendments in 2010 in an effort to eliminate districts that purposely favored one party or the other. But the power to draw the lines remained with legislators.
The same year, California voters passed Proposition 20, a constitutional amendment that took the power to draw district lines away from the Legislature and gave it to the Citizens Redistricting Commission.
In his 41-page ruling, Lewis said Republicans who controlled the Legislature redrew the districts with “improper partisan intent” in 2012 and went to great lengths to conceal their motives.
“They might have successfully concealed their plan and their actions from the public” if a coalition of voters and the League of Women Voters of Florida had not filed suit, Lewis wrote.
It was not clear Thursday night whether the ruling would affect the November election. Any changes to district lines would be delayed by an appeal from the Legislature, which said in a statement that it was studying the ruling.
Lewis’ decision could affect the careers of many members of Florida’s congressional delegation if it ultimately forces the redrawing of other districts. Although registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the state, its delegation is dominated by Republicans, 17 to 10.
“It’s a pretty historic ruling,” David King, an attorney who represented the coalition of groups that sued the Legislature, told the Tampa Tribune. “It just doesn’t work to say you are open and transparent. You have to actually do it.”
Seats in the two districts ordered redrawn are held by Rep. Daniel Webster, a Republican who has served in Congress since 2010, and Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat who has served since 1993.
Brown’s District 5 runs from Orlando to Jacksonville. Webster’s District 10 is in central Florida, near Gainesville. Neither Webster nor Brown could be reached for comment late Thursday.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab hailed the ruling as “a great day for democracy." She told The Times in an email that the ruling “exposed the conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into violating its constitutional duties.”
During a 12-day hearing before Lewis, top legislators said they had done nothing wrong. Lawyers for the Legislature noted that some Republican incumbents, including Rep. Allen West, had lost reelection races in 2012.
The judge ruled that the Republican leadership and its political consultants had engaged in a secret collaboration to redraw districts for maximum political advantage. The operatives wrote “scripts” for public hearings that were intended to cover up their actions, he said.
“They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent,” he wrote.
Lewis noted that legislative leaders and political operatives had deleted emails and other documents outlining their redistricting efforts.
“There is no legal duty on the part of the Legislature to preserve these records, but you have to wonder why they didn’t,” Lewis wrote.
Michael McDonald, an election expert at George Mason University who will move to the University of Florida in the fall, tweeted: “If all courts held legislators to as high a standard as Judge Lewis, we’d have fewer gerrymanders & a lot less other corruption.”
Because district lines are in effect for 10 years - until another census is performed - politically tailoring the districts has a long-term effect.
Times staff writer Connie Stewart contributed to this report.