Florida Supreme Court Ruling: Sunshine in Lakeland District
Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 12:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 11:37 p.m.
Two substantial events took place in Tallahassee on Friday: completion of the Florida Legislature’s annual 60-day session — scheduled two months early this year to provide time for the Florida Supreme Court to rule on new voting districts drawn by the Legislature for the state House and Senate, and the U.S. House — and the court’s ruling itself.
Sunday’s editorial, “Florida Supreme Court Ruling: Sunshine in Lakeland District,” incorrectly said that the Florida Supreme Court approved the U.S. House of Representative districts passed by the Florida Legislature as part of reapportionment. The U.S. House districts are expected to be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department.
Correction made to text and posted Thursday, March 15, 2012, at 10:20 a.m.
The ruling is the first under the Fair Districts amendments to the constitution, approved by voters in 2010. Those amendments aim to eliminate politics from reapportionment decisions — the drawing of new Florida districts every 10 years, two years after a decade’s new national census is taken.
Today starts another important event for Floridians with an interest in state, regional and local government: Sunshine Week.
Florida is famous for its open government: government in the sunshine, which refers to the requirement that meetings of elected and appointed boards such as county commissions be open to the public, and public records, which refer to the requirement that many records kept by the state, counties, cities, courts and other governmental agencies be open to the public.
However, in every year’s legislative session, numerous attempts are made to block the sunshine, particularly to exempt records from the Public Records Law. Too many of those efforts succeed. A few attempts are made to reverse exemptions or to open up government. Too few of those efforts succeed.
REPRESENTATION FOR OPENNESS
Open government starts with fair representation.
For Lakeland, the Florida Senate drew new Senate districts that split the city in half. The constitution, as a result of Fair Districts, says “districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.” Because its political boundary was breached during the redistricting process by putting half the city in one Senate district and the other half in a second Senate district, Lakeland filed a brief in connection with the Supreme Court’s review of the Legislature’s new maps.
Beyond Lakeland, the court ruled that eight of the 40 Senate districts do not meet the constitution’s requirements, particularly against protecting incumbents.
The court did not rule the dual Lakeland districts unconstitutional, although it spoke at length about those districts. It said the Senate should review the Lakeland districts and obtain additional information to use in redrawing the Senate map. The court approved the state House district drawn by the Florida House of Representatives. (The U.S. House districts are expected to be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department.)
Lakeland City Attorney Tim McCausland and the City Commission deserve credit for recognizing that two Senate districts would dilute the representation of the Lakeland residents. Two districts would make the Senate less open than one tightly focused on the city.
Wednesday, the Senate is scheduled to return to Tallahassee for a special session to redraw its map. It will be expected to use the court’s ruling as a guide.
The ruling said splitting a city won’t always be invalid, adding “the constitutional directive is only that ‘existing political and geographical boundaries’ should be used ‘where feasible.’?”
The Senate numbered the two Lakeland districts 24 and 16. The court said: “The Senate failed to adhere to any consistent definition of political and geographical boundary. This is especially evident because, in the case of District 24, the Senate placed part of inland Lakeland with the coastal communities of Manatee County.”
A conversation between Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, was quoted by the court, with Gaetz saying: “at this point any change to this part of the region would have ripple [effects] throughout the entire area and in the bordering districts, and we believe that this arrangement that is in the proposal represented the best reconciliation of priorities.”
The court said “we conclude that, when the Senate drew this portion of the plan, it did so with an incorrect understanding of both compactness, and utilizing political and geographical boundaries.”
Let the sun shine as brightly in the Senate for Lakeland residents as for other Floridians.