A circuit court judge threw out Florida's congressional redistricting map Thursday ruling that the Florida Legislature allowed for a "secret, organized campaign" by partisan operatives to subvert the redistricting process in violation of the state constitution.
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ordered two of the state's 27 districts to be redrawn to bring the map into compliance with the state's new Fair District amendments.
The 41-page ruling, issued late Thursday, raises questions now about whether the congressional map will be redrawn before the November elections or revised later. Any change in the political lines for Congress would have a ripple effect on other races.
The ruling in the lawsuit brought by a coaltion of voters and the League of Women Voters is expected to be repealed and ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court.
Lewis judge rejected challenges to districts in South Florida and that Tampa Bay but said that District 5, held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, and District 10, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, "will need to be redrawn, as will any other districts affected thereby."
"We were extremely gratified,'' said David King, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
Lewis blasted the role of the political consultants saying "they made a mockery of the Legislature's transparent and open process of redistricting" while "going to great lengths to conceal from the public their paln and their participation in it."
"They were successful in their efforts to influence the redistricting process and the congressional plan under review here,'' he wrote. "And they might have successfully concealed their scheme and their actions from the public had it not been for the Plaintiffs determined efforts to uncover it in this case."
He concluded, however, that the circumstantial evidence proved that the political operatives "managed to find other avenues...to infiltrate and influence the Legislature."
He drew no conclusions that House Speaker Will Weatherford, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, and Senate President Don Gaetz were aware of the scheme, but he raised doubts that they were not in some way complicit. Lewis detailed the involvement of Cannon's aide, Kirk Pepper, and repeated evidence that came out at trial about Pepper forwarding draft maps to GOP operative Marc Reichelderfer.
Lewis also noted that Legislative leaders and the political operatives destroyed almost all of their emails and other documents related to redistricting and concluded that the circumstantial evidence surrounding all of those developments, and the evidence that the consultants attempted to influence the same districts he has found problematic, proved the GOP operatives were trying to influence the process.
"There is no legal duty on the part of the Legislature to preserve these records, but you have to wonder why they didn't,'' he wrote. "Litigation over their plans was 'a moral certainty' as their lawyers put it earlier in the case, and intent woudl be a key issue in any challenge."
He also defended his decision to allow the inclusion of documents from political consultant Pat Bainter into the record. Lewis rejected Bainter's claim that the documents were trade secret but that issue is now on appeal before the Florida Supreme Court, so Lewis closed the courtroom and sealed the documents to allow discussion of them during trial.
Lewis said they provided the evidence needed by the plaintiffs to show there was a secret, shadow redistricting process being conducted by the political operatives. "The evidence was highly relevant and not available from other sources,'' he wrote "....to show how extensive and organized" the shadow map-making process was "and what lengths they went in order to conceal what they were doing."
Lewis tore apart the defense of the most controversial district in Florida's map -- District 5, a snake-shaped that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando that was first drawn by a court 20 years ago and which Brown has represented since then. Brown was so intent on leaving the district unchanged, that she challenged the constitutionality of Florida Fair District amendments adoped by voter in 2010, but she lost.
He said the decision by Republican leaders to increase the black voting age population in the district "was not compelling" but concluded it was done to improve the performance of surrounding districts to benefit Republicans.
Lewis also concluded that the trail of emails and secret documents, which GOP operatives fought to keep out of the record, proved that "Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process.
"They accomplished this by writing scripts for and organizing groups of people to attend the public hearings to advocate for adoption of certain components or characteristics in the maps, and by submitting maps and partial maps through the public process, all with the intention of obtaining enacted maps for the State House and Senate and for Congress that would favor the Republican Party," Lewis wrote.
He concluded, however, that the legislative staff involved in drawing the maps were not part of this scheme and said that staffers Alex Kelly, John Guthrie and Jason Poreda were "straightforward, frank and credible."
Lewis commended District 10 for following the requirement that districts be compact but he noted that an appendage added late in the process was "drawn to benefit the Republican Party and the incumbent," Rep. Webster.
He rejected claims by lawyers for the Legislature that a neighboring district was needed to be created to elected Hispanics and the appendage, which moved 80,000 voting age population out of Webster's district and another 71,000 into it, was needed to enable the partisan advantage.
"The appendage benefited the incumbent Representative Webster by returning to District 10 territory that was part of his benchmark District 8 and improved the Republican performan of District 10 in two out of three elections relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court,'' Lewis wrote.
Lewis also said the meetings held between legislators, political operatives and their staff involving Washington D.C. redistricting expert Ben Ginsberg raised some issues "that are troubling."
He noted that while the political consultants could have submitted maps, and showed intense interest in designing the maps, no on in the Legislature raised questions about why they didn't.
"I would think that the staff and legislative leaders would find it extremely strange, that they might even ask why not. But they didn't,'' he wrote.
Lewis also raised questions about the decision by House and Seante leaders to ignore the potential political performance of most districts they drew and why they didn't concern themselves with the authors of publicly-submitted maps.
"Turning a blind eye to the probability of improper intent in these maps is not the same as neutrality,'' he wrote.