TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature illegally drew the state’s congressional districts to primarily benefit the Republican Party, a judge ruled Thursday as he ordered them redrawn.
Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature broke the law when it drew up political maps in 2012. He rejected arguments from top legislative leaders that they had done nothing wrong.
The ruling is not expected to disrupt this year’s elections because the Legislature is expected to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. But ultimately the changes could affect the political careers of Florida’s congressional delegation.
A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford said Thursday night that the House was reviewing the decision.
Voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that said legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as “gerrymandering.”
A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, sued and contended that legislators used a “shadow” process to conceal the role of GOP consultants who helped craft the final maps adopted two years ago.
Lewis ruled that two districts violated the new standards: a sprawling district held by Rep. Corinne Brown that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster. Brown is a Democrat, while Webster is a Republican.
In his ruling Lewis stated that evidence presented during a nearly two-week trial showed that outside GOP political consultants engaged in a “conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.”
The evidence included testimony that a top House aide shared maps with a Republican consultant before they were made public. Another map, which resembled one put together by a consultant, was submitted in the name of a college student who said under oath he had nothing to do with it. The groups also questioned why legislators and legislative staff deleted emails even though they knew a lawsuit was likely.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz testified during the trial that outside GOP consultants were told early on that they would have no role in the process. They both denied that the Legislature deliberately drew up maps to favor Republicans. Attorneys for the Legislature repeatedly pointed out during the trial that several Republican incumbents, including U.S. Rep. Allen West, lost their re-election bids in 2012.
Attorneys and legislators also called the deletion of emails routine.
Even though there are more registered Democrats in the state, Republicans currently hold a 17-to-10 majority in Florida’s congressional delegation. President Barack Obama also won the state in the last two presidential elections, although Republicans have won the last four gubernatorial races.