Florida faces looming redistricting fiasco, but hope that justices will follow the constitution | Editorial

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The Florida Legislature knew its $3,000 limit on campaign contributions for citizen-led ballot amendments was unconstitutional.

But lawmakers passed it anyway.

Gov. Ron DeSantis knew it was unconstitutional.

But he signed it anyway.

Attorney General Ashley Moody knew it was unconstitutional.

But she defended it anyway.

Everyone knew that targeting one specific type of contribution violated the First Amendment, but literally no one in state government who possesses power lifted a finger to stop it.

Two federal judges saw the law for what it was, and blocked it from taking effect. The law was so bogus that Moody’s office didn’t even bother to challenge the injunction before the appeal deadline expired.

And now, the same Legislature that so casually passed that law is preparing to embark on a once-a-decade effort to redraw state and federal voting districts.

Two constitutional amendments passed by voters in 2010 — by margins of 63% — require those maps to be drawn without favoring incumbents or a particular political party. The districts must be compact and, as much as possible, they must follow city, county and geographical boundaries.

Pretty simple.

But even a decade ago, the Legislature tried its best to violate the state constitution when drawing congressional and state Senate maps.

The state got hauled into state Supreme Court, where it was virtually horsewhipped by justices who concluded their maps did not pass constitutional muster.

A lot has changed since then, and not for the better, as demonstrated by the attempt to crack down on campaign contributions to citizen-led amendments. The Legislature has become even more brazen in its disregard for voter-approved constitutional amendments it doesn’t like.

And, it now has a Florida Supreme Court that’s far more conservative and possibly more likely to cut the Legislature extra slack.

Meanwhile, the complicated legislative process for drawing new maps is woefully behind schedule, largely because the U.S. Census numbers are so late in coming, partly because of the pandemic. The data were supposed to be available last spring, but now aren’t expected to arrive until the end of September.

Months have been lost. Public hearings should be well underway.

The Census delays aren’t in any way the Legislature’s fault, but House and Senate leaders need to be doing everything possible to prime the pump for the data’s arrival.

Our fear is that the shortened window of opportunity will be an opportunity for the process to operate even further outside the sunshine than it has in the past. In other words, more behind-the-scenes, anti-constitutional mischief — safe in the belief that the state Supreme Court will quietly go along with whatever the Legislature decides.

We’re not as certain Florida’s highest court will be as willing as lawmakers to set aside their the oaths to uphold the constitution.

Remember, this is the court that unanimously rejected a DeSantis nominee because she was literally unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court, having not been a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years as required by the state constitution. (Yes, another instance where the governor knew he was doing something unconstitutional but didn’t care.)

“The Governor has not complied with the constitution’s clear commands,” the high court wrote.

If the court is willing to rule for the constitution in that instance, it may be inclined to do so again based on the clear commands of the Fair Districts amendments.

Over on the legislative side of state government, we’re not encouraged by the fact that only 17 lawmakers — all Democrats — out of the 160-member Legislature were willing to sign a pledge basically saying they’ll follow the constitutional Fair District mandate. Dozens of Democrats did not sign, along with every single Republican.

Not great.

The group that circulated that pledge, the Fair Districts Coalition, also is pressing for full transparency in this year’s delayed, time-shortened process.

The coalition, which consists of dozens of advocacy organizations, want the work of drafting maps to be done in full view of the public. They want all the mapping data to be easily available to the public. They want public comments and meeting transcripts made available quickly for anyone to review.

Republican leaders should heed those requests. After all the GOP huffing and puffing after the 2020 election about the need for transparency, it would be a fresh new hypocrisy for them to shroud redistricting in secrecy.

We have no doubt that the Legislature will try to play games, using the tried and true gerrymandering methods of cracking (splitting like-minded voters into multiple districts to dilute their power) and packing (cramming like-minded voters into districts to achieve the same goal).

But considering the Legislature’s record, we also have little doubt the maps will end up in court again, even though Florida’s constitution is crystal clear about how districts are supposed to be drawn.

Unless lawmakers surprise us, we will once again have to count on seven justices to ensure the Florida Constitution is followed.

So surprise us, lawmakers.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to insight@orlandosentinel.com.

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