TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A state Senate redistricting plan favored by voting-rights organizations was approved Wednesday by a Leon County judge in a move that could shake the Republican Party's grip on power in the Capitol.
In choosing the new map, Circuit Judge George Reynolds also rejected a plan put forward by Senate Republican leaders as the best configuration of the chamber's 40 seats. The proposal chosen by Reynolds would lead to a roughly even number of districts favoring each party.
It also means that two of the three maps used in Florida's congressional and legislative elections --- those for the U.S. House and state Senate --- would be drawn by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, the organizations that have spearheaded a four-year legal fight against the Legislature's redistricting plans.
The Legislature's original congressional plan was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering; shortly after that, lawmakers reached a settlement in which they conceded that the Senate map would also likely be found unconstitutional.
It was unclear whether the Senate, which has taken the lead in the legal proceedings over its plan, would appeal.
"This is another great result for our clients, but also a great result for every voter in the state of Florida," David King, a lawyer for the voting-rights groups, said Wednesday. "Because when they go to the polls in 2016, they're going to be able to cast a vote on constitutional maps for the congressional election and for the state Senate elections."
A spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he was still reviewing Reynolds' ruling.
But Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who will take over as president after the 2016 elections and is in charge of the GOP's campaign efforts, suggested that the Senate might cuts its losses. He projected confidence despite the possibility that the new plan might lead to a political realignment.
"With today's decision, the maps are set and Senate Victory is ready to focus on November 2016," Negron said in a statement issued after the decision, referring to the Senate GOP campaign efforts. "For the last 20 years, voters have elected principled Republicans to serve in the Florida Senate, and I am confident that voters will continue to support strong Republican candidates."
King, perhaps unsurprisingly, was confident that the ruling would stand.
"I think this decision from Judge Reynolds is rock-solid. ... I'm not sure what they would accomplish by taking up an appeal of this decision," he told reporters during a conference call.
The Florida Supreme Court has hardly been a kind forum for the Legislature, which has lost almost every redistricting challenge the justices have taken up.
In his 73-page opinion, Reynolds faulted the Senate GOP's plan --- known as "Senate Map 1" --- because it emerged from a redistricting process that seemed to follow "an established pattern of map selection that reasonably indicates an intent to choose the best performing map for the Republican party."
Lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida emphasized during a four-day trial this month how the Senate's plan evolved into a more and more Republican-friendly product.
During a special session that ended in November, lawmakers initially considered six "base maps" drawn by sequestered aides who were told not to consider political performance in their discussions. But the maps were changed, including a set of revisions by the Senate that critics said were made to protect incumbents in South Florida.
The Senate's proposal that Reynolds considered was put together by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who asked aides to combine different elements of two of the base maps. That plan, which was never voted on by the House or Senate, created the most GOP-friendly map of all.
"While the Senate maintains that the selection of Senate Map 1 was without partisan intent and that all safeguards were taken to insulate staff from outside political influence, it is difficult to infer anything other than impermissible partisan intent in the selection of Senate Map 1 based on its political performance," Reynolds wrote.
The plan also avoided pairing incumbents. In contrast, under the map Reynolds selected, Republican Sens. John Legg of Trinity and Wilton Simpson of Dade City would have to move to avoid facing one another. Three Democratic candidates in one South Florida district would be combined.
But what could cause the greatest upheaval in the state's political landscape is how the maps would perform. In 2008, 20 of the districts would have favored Democrats and 20 would have favored Republicans. Republicans would have enjoyed a 22-18 advantage in 2010, but Democrats would have held a 21-19 edge in 2012.
Factors such as candidate quality and when certain district are up for election could tilt those numbers. Senate terms are staggered, with half of the seats up for election each two years; which districts would run in which cycle will be determined when the map is randomly renumbered. Reynolds ordered lawmakers to do so within three days. Under the Florida Constitution, all seats would be up for re-election in 2016 because of the new districts.
In his ruling, Reynolds encouraged lawmakers to consider political data openly in their future redistricting attempts, which take place once a decade. He said that would allow the Legislature to confront whether a map was out of proportion with the state's political balance and, if so, either justify the difference or craft a new plan.
"lf the Legislature cannot openly discuss political performance, but their plan is evaluated and criticized by opponents based on its political performance then consideration should be given to the thought that they are being asked to draw and vote in the dark," Reynolds wrote. "This is no way to run the state's business on such an important and fundamental matter."
The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.
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