Florida’s congressional districts are some of the most GOP-friendly in the country. Although President Obama won a narrow victory over Mitt Romney in Florida during the 2012 presidential election, Republicans control 17 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. That means that, even though Obama won a majority of the votes cast by Floridians in 2012, Romney’s Republican Party controls nearly two-thirds of Florida’s U.S. House delegation.
On Thursday, a Florida trial court held that the congressional maps that produced this lopsided result violate the state’s constitution. Under an amendment added to the Florida Constitution in 2010, “[n]o apportionment plan or district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.” The amendment also provides protection against certain kinds of racial gerrymanders, and it establishes a preference for districts that are compact and “utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”
Judge Terry P. Lewis’s opinion reaches several significant conclusions. He strikes down two congressional districts — Districts 5 & 10 — as violations of the state constitution. He also holds that “[i]f one or more districts do not meet constitutional muster, then the entire [redistricting] act is unconstitutional.” Thus, if his decision is ultimately upheld, the legislature will need to consider an entirely new map — although Judge Lewis adds that this holding does not mean that “portions of the map not affected by those individual districts found to be improperly drawn would need to be changed in a redrawn map.” He also relies upon a prior Florida Supreme Court decision holding that districts typically “should not have an unusual shape, a bizarre design, or an unnecessary appendage” and that districts containing “finger-like extensions, narrow and bizarrely shaped tentacles, and hook like shapes . . . are constitutionally suspect and often indicative of racial and partisan gerrymandering.”
Which brings us to the shape of the districts at issue in this case. Here is the relevant portion of Florida’s congressional map:
That purple, worm-like thing that starts near the northeast corner of the state and then twists almost all the way down to its midpoint, that’s District 5. District 10 is the one directly below District 5. Though more compact in shape than a purple worm, District 10 has what Judge Lewis describes as “an odd-shaped appendage which wraps under and around District 5, running between District 5 and 9.” As Lewis notes, Districts 5, 7, 9 and 10 are shaped the way they are in part because a Republican political consultant suggested that they be redrawn in a way that transformed them “from being four Democratic performing or leaning seats in early maps . . . to two Democratic and two Republican performing seats in the enacted map.” So Republicans likely picked up two congressional seats because of the odd design of these districts.
Indeed, Lewis discusses significant evidence that Republican lawmakers colluded with Republican operatives regarding the maps. Early in the process, Republican legislative leaders met with a group of GOP political operatives and a top Republican lawyer to discuss redistricting. The deputy chief of staff to Florida’s then-house speaker shared draft maps with a particular Republican consultant at least 24 times. In some cases, he provided this GOP consultant “with draft maps that were never released to the public.”
Yet, while Judge Lewis’s opinion reaches some damning conclusions about the current congressional maps, Thursday’s decision is far from a total victory for the plaintiffs in this case. Those plaintiffs challenged nine of Florida’s congressional districts, but Lewis only struck down two.
Nevertheless, his opinion is a significant victory over one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation, and it also an important proof of concept. The United States Supreme Court, or, at least, its conservative members, have thus far refused to allow federal courts to consider partisan redistrict cases because they claim they are unable to identify a “manageable standard” that judges can use to decide these cases. Yet Judge Lewis was able to uncover and apply a standard he could use to judge Florida’s maps. His decision on Thursday casts a cloud of doubt over the conservative justices’ decisions regarding partisan gerrymandering.
Should the Supreme Court permit the federal judiciary to examine unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, it is likely that Florida will not be the only state whose maps will fail judicial scrutiny. Florida is one of several states with maps that are heavily gerrymandered to benefit Republicans: