In my legal career, I’ve suffered two painful defeats litigating against the Republican political machine of Florida. The first was a case called Bush v. Gore. The second—less famous, but just as bitter—came two years later, in 2002, when I worked on a legal challenge to Florida’s absurdly partisan redistricting plan, only to see our claims rejected by both the state and federal courts. So last week’s court ruling overturning gerrymandered congressional districts in Florida gave me a serious case of déjà vu for several reasons. First, its author was Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis—a major figure in the post-2000 Florida election litigation miasma, who ultimately wound up overseeing the statewide hand recount of ballots that the U.S. Supreme Court halted in its infamous 5–4 order. Second, the ruling represented a long overdue vindication of our 2002 claim that the Florida Legislature had abused its power in entrenching its control over the state through redistricting. While much of the coverage of Lewis’ opinion has focused on the Florida legislative “chicanery” that it laid bare, a more substantial question is this: Why did this case strike down a hyper-partisan districting plan, when virtually every other such court challenge, in virtually every other state, has failed over the past three decades? How was the widespread bastardization that allows “representatives to pick their voters, instead of voters picking their representatives” finally checked by a court decision?
The key, as Lewis’ opinion makes clear, was the 2010 addition to the Florida Constitution known as the “Fair District” amendments. The Fair District amendments provide (in part):
No apportionment plan or district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent … districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.
It was this language that Lewis relied upon to strike down two specific congressional districts crafted by the Florida Legislature (while upholding several others) due to the way in which those misshaped districts were drawn under the thinly disguised guidance of political operatives and consultants.