Former Gov. Lawton Chiles was a larger than life figure, a man who won his first U.S. Senate campaign by walking more than 1,000 miles from Pensacola to Key West to raise his name identification and meet ordinary Floridians, earning him the moniker, “Walkin’ Lawton.” The Lakeland Democrat tried to retire from politics in 1988 after three Senate terms, only to be coaxed into running for governor just two years later against an unpopular Republican incumbent. He won that race and then a re-election cliffhanger against Jeb Bush.
Chiles did not get to finish that second term, succumbing to a heart attack with 23 days left in office, but his legacy looms large over both the coming second special session (Aug. 10 – 21) of the Legislature and a third, just announced, special session (Oct. 10 – Nov. 6).
That’s because three of the justices he appointed are still sitting on the Florida Supreme Court, and they joined with two of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointees to double down on a circuit ruling and order the Legislature to significantly redraw the boundaries of Florida’s congressional districts. The ruling led directly to the second special session, which will deal with congressional districts, and it ultimately convinced lawmakers to schedule the third session, rather than waiting for the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the state Senate districts.
At issue was whether political operatives, and possibly others, conspired to circumvent the 2010 Fair Districts Amendments to the state constitution and draw congressional districts specifically designed to protect incumbent Republicans. A circuit court had ruled that the Fair Districts Amendments had been circumvented, but prescribed a fairly mild remedy that would involve redrawing only two congressional districts.
By a 5-2 vote earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the amendment had been circumvented but found the remedy to be insufficient. In a stinging rebuke to the Legislature, the high court found that a minimum of eight congressional districts would need new boundaries. More districts could be affected, depending on how lawmakers are able to meet the very exacting guidelines laid out by the court.
The author of the opinion in this case, Justice Barbara Pariente, is a Chiles appointee and the longest-serving justice on the court. She was joined in the opinion by another Chiles appointee, Justice Peggy Quince and two Crist appointees, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice James Perry. The third Chiles appointee, Justice R. Fred Lewis, voted with the other four, though he did not concur with Pariente’s opinion.
While Pariente has served on the court since 1997, both Lewis and Quince were appointed just days before Chiles died. Quince technically was a joint appointment by Chiles and the incoming governor, Bush. The two justices who opposed the ruling, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, were appointed by Crist, a Republican during his tenure as governor.
(Even amongst the dissenters, Chiles’ footprint can be seen. Canady’s father was one of Chiles’ chief aides in the U.S. Senate. When Chiles died, Canady – then a GOP congressman from Lakeland – fought back tears and said, “I knew Lawton Chiles from the time when I was a child. He was a good man, he was a dedicated public servant.”)
Oh, and 2nd Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis, the man who made the initial ruling in the case? He also was a Chiles appointee. (As an intriguing aside, this likely is no better than the second-most interesting case in which Lewis has been involved. He also was the supervising judge in the infamous Bush-Gore recount of 2000.)
Maybe it is fitting that his appointees have been so integral in this case. Chiles championed “sunshine” laws, statutes that added more transparency to government operations. And, it is transparency that is at the heart of the case in question.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the two Fair Districts Amendments in 2010, and the intent was to remove partisanship, to the greatest degree possible, from the redistricting that occurs after each federal census. The amendments added language to the Florida constitution stating that no legislative or congressional district “shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.” It also said the districts cannot abridge the right of minorities to participate in the political process. Finally, it also reads, “districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries” (consistent with federal law).
In other words, draw boundaries based on geographic common sense, make sure everyone’s voice can be heard and don’t run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. And, most important of all, the amendment directs legislators to put partisan politics aside when drawing district boundaries.
The League of Women Voters and other groups sued after the Legislature finished drawing the congressional maps, charging the boundaries were intentionally designed to help the overwhelming majority of Republican incumbents. Intent is key in this case, in that the Constitution now prohibits the Legislature from purposefully drawing partisan, incumbent-protecting districts. The plaintiffs had to prove “unconstitutional intent,” and in his lower court ruling, Lewis said they did just that, determining that political operatives had found a way to circumvent the process.
“What is clear to me from the evidence . . .” Lewis wrote, “is that this group of Republican political consultants . . . did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process. They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.”
According to Pariente’s opinion, as the Legislature moved forward with what appeared to be a transparent process of public hearings on redistricting, the four consultants found a way to draw maps favorable to Republican incumbents and have third-party individuals or groups introduce the maps during the hearings. Lewis found limited legislative involvement in the unconstitutional intent and ultimately ordered only two congressional districts to be redrawn.
One was the 5th District, which twists and turns from Jacksonville to Orlando and is almost the very definition of gerrymandering. It is represented by Corrine Brown, a Democrat. The other was the 10th District, which is immediately adjacent to Brown’s district and represented by Daniel Webster, a Republican. The Supreme Court, while agreeing fully with Lewis’ ruling of unconstitutional intent, determined that he had had not given enough weight to the impact of that intent.
The court found that eight districts – stretching from Brown’s classically gerrymandered 5th District, to Tampa Bay districts, to several in South Florida – must be redrawn and that adjustments may be necessary to neighboring districts as well. The court provided very specific guidelines for how the eight districts should be redrawn.
“Through this opinion,” Pariente wrote, “we have provided clear guidance as to the specific deficiencies in the districts that the Legislature must redraw . . . and we have urged the Legislature in light of the trial court’s findings in this case to consider making the decisions on the redrawn map in public view.”
After expressing confidence that the Legislature would honor its responsibilities, Pariente’s opinion noted that the litigation has taken more than three years and that the 2016 congressional elections are looming. “We therefore urge that the redrawing of the map be expedited.”
Which brings us to the upcoming special session. A number of Florida’s members of Congress are nervous they could be running for re-election in substantially different districts next fall. Brown’s 5th District is the most intriguing; the Washington Post recently called it “one of America’s most gerrymandered.” A major redrawing of that district could have significant ramifications for neighboring districts.
But, as noted, there’s more.
The League of Women Voters and Common Cause found fault with more than just the congressional map. They feel the Florida Senate map contains flaws in 28 of the state’s 40 districts. They have filed suit, again in the 2nd Circuit Court, and a trial date has been set for Sept. 28. That got legislators talking openly about the possibility of having an additional special session to pre-emptively redraw state senate districts. On July 28, the session was announced, and the results will complicate things for a number of senators. New districts could force many senators to stand for re-election in 2016, even though some were elected to four-year terms not set to expire until 2018.
Lewis will not be the trial judge in this case and, in a mild upset, the presiding judge is not a Chiles appointee. George Reynolds, who will oversee the case, actually was appointed by the man Chiles beat, Bob Martinez.