TALLAHASSEE -- Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Friday rejected the Florida Legislature's third attempt at redrawing its congressional districts and recommended a map proposed by the challengers -- including a redrawn 16th District that includes all of Manatee but only part of Sarasota -- to the Florida Supreme Court for its final review.
The new 16th District would be comprised of all of Manatee County, Hillsborough County south of the Alafia River, and northern Sarasota County. Parts of East Manatee are now in a separate district. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, lives in the redrawn district.
Southern Sarasota County, including North Port and Venice, would be in a new 17th District.
The ruling shuffles the landscape for legislators in the central and northern parts of the state. The map as recommended by Lewis leaves three sitting members of Congress in precarious re-election situations and resolves a dispute between the House and Senate over how to handle Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.
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Lewis adopted the configuration initially drawn by staff and favored by the House in which everyone in Eastern Hillsborough County south of the Alafia River would change their current members of Congress. Instead of being split between Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor and Okeechobee Republican Tom Rooney, the area would be represented by Buchanan.
In Sarasota County, half of the county would lose Buchanan as its member of Congress. Northern Sarasota County and all of Manatee County would remain in Buchanan's 16th District. Areas of southern Sarasota County, including Venice and North Port, would shift into the newly configured 17th Congressional District held by Rooney.
The plan also rejects the proposal to keep all of Sarasota in one county and puts most of eastern Hillsborough into the 15th Congressional District, represented now by Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross.
Lewis rejected the argument by Senate leaders characterizing Hillsborough as a "donor county" but noted the Senate alternative plan "makes no similar effort to address the 'donor' status of other counties in the map, and it exacerbated the 'donor' status of Orange County."
Lewis adopted the bulk of the map approved by lawmakers in the northern and central portions of the state but specifically rejected the proposed boundaries for District 26 in Miami-Dade, now held by Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
The challengers, a coalition of League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals, agreed with the Legislature's configuration of 20 of 27 districts proposed in a staff-drawn base map but asked the court to adopt changes to the remaining districts. Lewis agreed.
"The Legislature has thus not met its burden of justifying the proposed versions of Districts 20 through 27," he wrote in a 19-page ruling. He said a map drawn by the challengers "best complies with the directions" set out by the Florida Supreme Court in July and "I therefore recommend its adoption."
House Redistricting Committee chairman state Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, who had wanted the court to accept the House map, responded to the news with a Tweet: "Court's ruling declares different standard of intent for the Legislature than they do for themselves. Justice depends on consistent standards."
In its July 9 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to keep the city of Homestead whole and the Legislature's solution was to create a district that performed better for Republicans by moving the black communities of Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates and West Perrine into the neighboring District 27, now held by Republican state Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The House and Senate argued only way to avoid reducing the ability of Hispanics to elect their own candidate is to leave the district more Republican-leaning as they proposed. Their argument: The district is leaning Democratic and Democrats won't elect an Hispanic.
Lewis rejected the argument, noting "Hispanics have consistently elected the candidate of their choice" in the region and rejected Florida International University professor Dario Moreno's testimony the district as proposed by the challengers will "lock out" Hispanic voters.
"Professor Moreno, who no doubt has a good bit of knowledge and expertise about elections in South Florida, testified to his concerns that the CP-1 configuration would diminish the ability of Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice," he wrote. "His testimony was long on pure opinion based on experience and short on systematic, scientific analysis of accepted statistical data."
Lewis also chastised lawmakers for trying only one configuration of districts 26 and 27 and rejected the suggestion plaintiffs were acting politically when they pointed out the flaws in the House and Senate maps. He noted lawmakers did not want to respond to the criticism for fear of being accused of political favoritism.
"I understand the dilemma faced by the Legislature in that situation," Lewis wrote. "If it has drawn the map without regard to political performance, then it would be improper for it to 'correct' the political effect of the map in certain districts when someone complains.
"But if a citizen cannot point out what appears to them to be political gerrymandering in certain districts, without the Legislature shutting down any further consideration of those districts ... it is difficult to see how public participation in the process could ever effectively occur."
Lawmakers were handed an unprecedented set of directives in July when the Florida Supreme Court ruled the congressional boundaries used in the 2012 and 2014 elections were invalid because lawmakers had allowed improper interference by political operatives and created congressional districts that illegally favored incumbents and political parties. The court gave specific guidelines for redrawing eight districts and ordered Lewis to review their work and make a recommendation by Oct. 17.
When lawmakers tried and failed to resolve their differences in an August special session, the court threw it back to Lewis, who had been supervising the case that has cost taxpayers more than $8 million for the last 3 1/2 years.
In Tampa Bay, the map merges most of Pinellas County into Congressional District 13, which includes former Gov. Charlie Crist's home. Crist is expected to announce soon he is running for Congress.
And the district now held by Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, will become significantly more Democratic. Jolly has announced he will not seek re-election but will run for the Republican nomination for Senate.
Rep. Gwen Graham, a Democrat from Tallahassee, will also see her current District 2 become significant more Republican while her home base will become part of the newly drawn minority majority District 5, now held by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
In Central Florida, the changes will be the most significant, as the court ordered the Legislature to move the minority majority district out of the region and into North Florida. That configuration had allowed lawmakers to pack Democrats into that district and strengthen neighboring Republican districts.
The new configuration approved by Lewis dismantles the current District 10 held by Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, and creates a Hispanic, Democrat-dominated seat Webster acknowledges he could not win. Webster, however, has said he will challenge the configuration and is campaigning to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The recommended map also keeps Hendry County whole, too, and keeps District 20 an African-American majority-minority district that stretches into Miramar, now held by Rep. Alcee Hastings. It also differs from the Legislature's maps by not splitting six cities in districts 20 and 21, held by Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel.