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Emails show Florida GOP may have defied constitutional amendment

Suit alleges party illegally worked with lawmakers on redistricting

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Afternoon view of Florida's Old Capitol in the foreground with the new Capitol in the background in Tallahassee, Fla.

Phil Coale/AP

Documents released this week appear to show that Florida legislative leaders worked with state Republican officials to manipulate redistricting efforts, in apparent defiance of a constitutional amendment that banned such coordination.

The documents, the contents of which were first described by the Herald/Times of Florida, were ordered released by a judge presiding over a suit against the state filed last year by both individuals and government watchdogs. That suit alleges that new boundary lines for both congressional and state Senate districts are illegal because they came about partly as a result of politically-driven activities forbidden by the amendment. Among the documents are emails between political consultants, the staff of Republican leaders and two state representatives discussing the new district lines.

In nearly any other state, the revelation would not have been a surprise. As the State Integrity Investigation detailed last year, politicians are free to draw new Congressional and state legislative district lines for partisan gain in most states.

But in 2010, voters in Florida approved changes to the state Constitution that prohibit legislators, who control the redistricting process in the state, from drawing lines to favor a particular party or incumbent. Redistricting is done every 10 years to redraw congressional and legislative districts to guarantee equal representation in light of new U.S. Census data.

Plaintiffs say the emails show a clear violation of the amendment. In one, a Republican lawmaker writes an email from his personal account to a campaign consultant hired by Republicans, asking, “What does this do to my district?” Another email, from another Republican consultant, announces a redistricting meeting that was to be held at the state GOP headquarters. Those scheduled to attend included several consultants as well as staff members of the House and Senate leadership. Other emails show the consultants discussing the maps and possible changes.

“These documents suggest very strongly that partisan motives were not only at work but helped develop the plan,” said Gerry Hebert, a lawyer representing the League of Women Voters, one of several plaintiffs.

In an initial, automatic review last year, Florida’s Supreme Court struck down the Republicans’ first attempt to draw new lines for the state Senate, but approved the current map. The plaintiffs quickly sued to challenge those districts, as well as the lines Republicans drew for Congress.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, declined to comment because the suit is still being litigated. House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a statement defending the newly drawn districts. “We are proud of those results and believe it was because of our transparency, openness and unwavering compliance with the law.”

The State Integrity Investigation gave Florida an A for redistricting, as part of a review of state government ethics and transparency. That rating was based primarily on the opportunity for public input, however, and did not grade whether or not political leaders were able to draw lines for partisan gain.

Justin Levitt, an expert in redistricting at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Florida’s constitution does not prohibit political parties and lawmakers from discussing the plans, but that Republicans will need to explain why they were discussing the topic. “It looks fishy,” he said, “and they’re going to have to come up with a pretty good reason why they were talking to the party.”