by Morgan Cullen
This week Florida lawmakers reconvened in Tallahassee for a special legislative session on redistricting. Last Friday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the Legislature's House plan in its entirety but struck down the Senate redistricting plan. For the first time, the Court was required to interpret a new constitutional amendment that prohibits state legislative redistricting plans from "favoring or disfavoring an incumbent or political party."
In November of 2010, Florida voters passed the "Fair Districts Amendment" to their constitution prohibiting political and incumbent gerrymandering. The amendment also prohibits drawing districts that discriminate against minority voters by "denying them an opportunity to participate in the political process or diminishing their ability to elect a candidate of their choice." Additionally, it requires districts to be contiguous, equal in population, compact and to maintain "political and geographical boundaries where feasible."
Florida is not the only state with standards that limit partisan or incumbent favoritism in redistricting. Currently 12 states have some form of prohibition against plans that favor incumbent lawmakers or a particular political party. But these limits vary from constitutional standards in some states to committee guidelines in others. The states with the strongest restrictions contained in state constitutions are Arizona, California and Florida. Arizona's Constitution uses a positive, rather than negative, approach: it requires all districts to be "competitive" to the "extent practicable." Federal law does not place limits on drawing plans that advantage a particular party or individual.
Under Florida law, the state Supreme Court is required to review the Legislature's final redistricting plans within 30 days of passage to ensure compliance with the state's Constitution. In overturning the legislatively enacted state Senate plan, the Court found that:
- Eight of 40 districts in the new plan were not compact and favored incumbent lawmakers
- Democratic-leaning districts were consistently overpopulated compared to Republican-leaning-districts
- The Senate did not perform a proper analysis of voter registration numbers and past election data to justify the creation of majority-minority districts within the state.
The court also said that the Senate's method of renumbering its districts favored certain incumbents. Because Senate terms are staggered and half of the chamber is up for election every two years, renumbering Senate districts would allow some lawmakers to serve up to ten years. Because of term limits, Florida lawmakers are only allowed to serve a maximum of 8 years.
In its majority opinion, the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged that both the house and senate plans would have met their constitutional requirements in previous years but this new standard required a more comprehensive evaluation.
Redistricting draws litigation more than any other legislative process. Florida joins Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri and Pennsylvania as one of eight states that have had plans struck down by a court in this redistricting cycle. Two months ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court struck down the state's congressional plan. 113 cases have been filed in 31 states so far in the 2010 redistricting cycle. This is typical: 149 cases were filed in 40 states during the 2000 round of redistricting and 150 cases filed in 41 states during the 1990s.