Florida redistricting plans get final passage

Democrats sue to challenge congressional map

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Democrats filed a lawsuit against a congressional redistricting map immediately after that plan and a second one redrawing Florida House and Senate districts received final approval Thursday from the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Senate sent the congressional map (HB 1174) to Gov. Rick Scott and the legislative plan (SJR 1176) to the Florida Supreme Court. Both passed in the House last week.

The Democrats contend the maps violate anti-gerrymandering standards in the two Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution that voters approved in 2010. The suit was filed in state Circuit Court here. Florida Democratic Party officials said they would contest the legislative maps during the Supreme Court review.

Three nonpartisan groups that supported the Fair Districts amendments also announced plans to sue once Scott signs the congressional plan.

"Republicans have undertaken the sort of incumbent protection and partisan gerrymandering that 63-percent of Florida voters overwhelmingly demanded must stop," said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith. "Now the courts have to step in to implement the will of the people -- a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish."

Republicans insisted the maps conform to the amendments that prohibit the intentional drawing of districts to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.

Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, argued that it doesn't matter if the maps favor the GOP or incumbents because if they do that result was unintentional.

"Effect does not prove intent," Gaetz said. "The effect is irrelevant legally and constitutionally."

Other Fair Districts provisions say the right of racial and language minorities to elect candidates of their choice cannot be diminished and that districts should be compact and follow geographic and political boundaries whenever feasible.

Leaders of the League of Women Voters of Florida, The National Council of La Raza, and Common Cause Florida said their groups and four individual plaintiffs will sue in the same Tallahassee court if and when Scott, a Republican, signs the congressional bill into law.

A draft of their planned lawsuit says the map "is filled with unconstitutional political gerrymanders intended to favor one political party and certain incumbents, while disfavoring the other political party and other incumbents"

The groups did an analysis that showed Republicans would be favored to win at least twice as many districts as Democrats, although voter registration in Florida is split almost evenly between the parties.

The proposed lawsuit also alleges the plan "suppresses the ability of minorities to participate in Florida's political process by unnecessarily confining their influence to select districts and purposefully keeping them out of others."

There's no need to show intent to prove a violation of the minority protection provisions, but Gaetz also argued the maps do not diminish their ability to elect their preferred candidates.

The congressional map increases the black voting age population of a district currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a black Democrat, from slightly below 50 percent to just above 50 percent. It also maintains minority majorities in two other congressional districts represented by black Democrats and three seats held by Hispanic Republicans.

The map adds two new congressional districts to bring the total to 27 including one in central Florida with a 41.3 percent Hispanic voting age population. Most of those Hispanics, though, are Puerto Ricans who tend to vote Democratic.

The House passed the legislative and congressional plans on party-line votes, but most Democrats in the Senate voted in favor while and a couple Republicans also split with their party.

The congressional plan passed 32-5 with seven of the 12 Senate Democrats supporting it. Republican Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland voted against the plan, joining Democrats Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, Nan Rich of Weston and Maria Sachs of Boca Raton.

The legislative plan passed 31-7 with the same seven Democrats voting for it and two Republicans against, Dockery and Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, did not vote on the congressional plan because he was paired with Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton who was absent. Smith would have voted no and Bennett would have voted yes if he had been present. Smith, however, did not pair with Bennett on the legislative plan and voted against it along with the same Democrats who opposed the congressional map.

One feature of the Senate map that's sure to be a focal point of the court arguments is that no sitting senators, except for those being term-limited out of office, would be placed in a district with another incumbent.

That's not the case with the House and congressional maps that double up numerous incumbents.

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