Lawsuits Flying Over Florida's Redistricting

Florida's legislature has released its new legislative and congressional maps as part of the once-every-decade redistricting process, and the lawsuits are already flying. Democrats and watchdog groups say the new maps violate constitutional amendments that require districts to be drawn without regard to political parties or incumbents. The process is likely to be tied up in the courts for months, but the proposed maps are already having an impact — including forcing Tea Party favorite, Congressman Allen West, to leave his old district for one that's friendlier to Republicans.

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In Florida, members of Congress and the state legislature are scrambling to decide what districts they'll run for in this year's election. The legislature recently released maps that redraw the districts. It's a once-in-a-decade process every state goes through to reflect population changes since the last census. Because of its growth, Florida is gaining two seats, but there is bipartisan unhappiness with the maps. And NPR's Greg Allen reports that the battle over how they were drawn may ultimately be decided by the courts.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Even before the new maps were finalized, the scrambling began. And in Florida's Republican congressional delegation, it's created some tension. On the Atlantic Coast, 10-term Republican Congressman John Mica will now face off in the primary against fellow Republican Sandy Adams. In South Florida, when the music stopped, the Republican congressman with the least desirable chair was Allen West. An outspoken conservative, an African-American and a Tea Party favorite, West represents a district that, as it's redrawn, now leans Democratic. On CBS recently, West said he wasn't pleased with the new district or with Republican leaders in Tallahassee.

REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: Well, you know, I'm sure that there's a little bit of cronyism and nepotism there. And I think that when you have a legislature as we do in the state of Florida where there are term limits, maybe some of these guys were looking to draw districts for them to - as an advantage.

ALLEN: West says he'll now run for a district further up the coast, bumping another Republican congressman, Tom Rooney. Rather than face off against the well-known and well-funded West, Rooney says he's found another district to run in. While some Republicans are upset, Democrats in Florida are livid. They say the new maps perpetuate the gerrymandering Republicans carried off in the last redistricting process 10 years ago. In numbers of registered voters in Florida, Democrats actually hold a slight edge over Republicans. But Republicans control the state legislature and that's who draws up the maps. Rod Smith is the head of Florida's Democratic Party.

ROD SMITH: The incumbents are overwhelmingly favored by this, and it is by any stretch of the imagination and highly weighted in a state that is a - really right down the center in terms of performance, it is highly weighted to the Republicans by something like a 20 to 7 margin.

ALLEN: This time, Democrats and others critical of the new maps have a new weapon they think will even the battle. Amendments to the state constitution adopted by Florida voters now require districts to be drawn compactly, following existing geographical boundaries - and here is the important part - without regard to political parties or protecting incumbents. Florida Democrats have already filed a lawsuit challenging the congressional district maps. The League of Women Voters and other nonpartisan groups are preparing another. But the first test for the new maps comes later this month in a hearing before Florida's Supreme Court. Smith thinks the court will agree that these maps fall short.

SMITH: This is real simple. To comply, all you do is draw lines that make sense and that are neutral. They don't have partisan advantage. They don't have incumbent protection. And they will encourage more Democratic participation. And I think that's the sense of what the voters wanted. And that's the sense of what I think the Florida Supreme Court is going to require.

ALLEN: When he heard about the lawsuits challenging the new maps, Senator Don Gaetz had a three-word reaction.

SENATOR DON GAETZ: What a surprise.

ALLEN: Gaetz is one of the Republican leaders who helped steer Florida's redistricting process. He and his counterpart in the state House spent months touring the state, soliciting input at public hearings. Gaetz says opponents have threatened lawsuits from the beginning, hoping to do in the courts what they can't achieve otherwise. But he believes the process and the maps that have resulted will stand up to court scrutiny.

GAETZ: We drew districts which we believe are defensible. We believe the boundaries and the lines are logical and will be up to the court to decide.

ALLEN: No matter what Florida Supreme Court decides, the legal battle over the new legislative and congressional district maps is just getting started. Along with the other lawsuits, the federal government will also weigh in, scrutinizing the congressional maps to ensure they don't unfairly target minorities, all of which means redistricting may not be completed for months. For people running for office and elections officials who prepare the ballots, the clock is ticking. The filing deadline for candidates in Florida is less than four months away. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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