Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Columns

Redistricting: Lots of shoes still to drop

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So the Legislature is back at it, once more attempting to thread the devilishly miniscule eye of a needle only lawyers could love.

Which is appropriate, because the thing was the creation of lawyers in the first place, and lawyers incapable of making the absurd and impractical seem reasonable soon come to be known as teachers or journalists or multi-level marketers.

I mean, as anyone who has sat through a courtroom case can tell you, if all you hear is one side — it tends not to matter which side — even the lawyerly equivalent of Boo Weekly can make his version of the argument sound impenetrable.

This is not to suggest, back in 2010 when voters were challenged to decide how future political boundaries would be drawn, the face-value presentation on behalf of compact, contiguous and party-neutral districts lacked merit. Indeed, there was then and remains today much to commend about such an arrangement, the very least of which is the likelihood that districts thus composed would simultaneously yield fewer safe seats while creating more competition. The last I looked, competition was revered as among the most precious of American virtues.

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The problem, then and now, is strict adherence to the otherwise laudable goal of compact-contiguous-neutral districts must certainly collide with a 20-year-old federal edict regarding minority representation in Florida, each of which seems uncontestable on its own, and each of which uses the same visual aid to serve its point.

The congressional district held by Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, has been virtually intact since it was drawn by a federal court in response to a 1992 lawsuit brought under the Voting Rights Act. Meandering some 200 miles through eight counties (Duval to Orange) more or less along the historic St. John’s River floodplain, Florida’s congressional District 5 (No. 3 in the previous formulation) is the poster child of gerrymandering — that is, the practice of squeezing voters into a bloc to elicit desired election results.

Nonetheless, noxious as it is, state legislators do not mess with the handiwork of federal judges. Accordingly, when the (yes, all right, Republican-led) Legislature set about drawing new maps in 2011 to accommodate two additional districts (to 27, total) plus the new constitutional dictates, members knew they had to begin by pasting down, essentially un-tweaked, the very boundaries that fueled the Fair Districts movement in the first place.

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Now, much has been made of the sausage-grinding, exposed at trial this summer, that went into drafting the maps the Legislature approved, a process described as “a mockery” by Leon Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis.

Still, for all that, it’s difficult to elude the fact that, if not for the state House’s insistence on suturing on an appendix that strayed comically into Sanford for no other reason than to boost the District 5 population of black voters to 51 percent — lacking the vestigial appendage, the Senate’s map, overseen by John Legg, the wonkishly fastidious freshman from Trinity, came in at 48 percent black — it’s even money we wouldn’t have had this whole big fuss in the first place.

Well, maybe. OK, probably not. Lawyers got to litigate, which always was the subtext of the Fair Districts narrative. And we’re probably a long way from being finished.

Released Thursday, the House’s revised map revealed a Sanford-ectomy for District 5, which in the process became a minority-plurality rather than a minority-majority district. We await the dropping of other shoes. Will Lewis be satisfied? And if he is, will Brown? If not, we’ll see everybody in federal court for Immovable Object vs. Irresistible Force II.

So many briefs to file. So many billable hours to log. It’s all going according to plan.

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