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Lawyers, Unions Bankroll FairDistricts Crusade

September 19, 2010 - 6:00pm

Now that the Florida Supreme Court has given Amendments 5 and 6 a clear run to the Nov. 2 ballot, it's up to voters to decide whether the so-called FairDistricts proposals will make for improved representation in the Legislature and in Congress.

Proponents of the measures -- bankrolled by trial attorneys, unions and other Democratic Party loyalists -- say current district boundaries reflect the worst partisan gerrymandering designed to maximize Republican control.

FairDistricts founder Ellen Freidin says the campaign's proposed reforms would favor neither party. She points to three of the group's six honorary co-chairs: Republicans Nathaniel Reed, Bob Milligan and Thom Rumberger.

But when it comes to money and organization, attorney Freidin's campaign is a true-blue affair. Its largest contributors are big-time Democratic donors, including:

  • Service Employees International Union: $375,000
  • National Education Association: $300,000
  • Florida Education Association: $150,000
  • Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley law firm: $115,000.

Big individual donors include loyal Democratic supporters: retired energy executive Christopher Findlater ($200,000), Boar's Head Chairman Frank Brunckhorst ($115,000) and Jacksonville attorney Wayne Hogan ($70,000).

Several other unions -- ranging from the Florida Pipe Trades Council to the National Air Traffic Controllers -- and individual attorneys and law firms pitched in five-figure donations.

Having raised $4,213,080 through Aug. 18, FairDistricts scored a key legal victory last month when the state Supreme Court knocked a counter-amendment off the fall ballot.

Amendment 7 would have given voters an alternative redistricting proposal, effectively safeguarding the Legislature's legal responsibility for drawing state and federal legislative boundaries. But the court, in a 5-2 decision, ruled that Amendment 7's ballot summary was "confusing" and killed the measure.

Now voters are left to weigh the merits of Amendments 5 and 6. In almost identical language, Amendment 5 (dealing with legislative districts) and Amendment 6 (dealing with congressional districts) state:

"Legislative [or congressional] districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries."

It all seems sensible and logical enough -- especially when contrasted with the tortured lines that encompass many state and federal districts.

But if the high court thought rival Amendment 7 was "confusing," others call Amendments 5 and 6 both disingenuous and treacherous.

"They are written so poorly that I think who would win a redistricting lawsuit probably comes down to who has a better lawyer, assuming these amendments passed and someone brought suit," says Seth McKee, a University of South Florida political scientist who has written extensively on redistricting issues.

Bet on a spate of legal challenges, says incoming state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who calls FairDistricts "a full-employment act for lawyers."

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, agrees.

"The whole (redistricting) process is open to infinite interpretations. We live in a republic and we elect people to make these decisions. At the end of the day they need to be made by elected officials, not the courts," Large says.

The long list of lawyers and law firms contributing to FairDistricts is no accident, critics say.

Bob Sanchez, policy director at the conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, sees the legal-political gamesmanship extending to the state's high court.

"(Amendments 5 and 6) require legislators to achieve the seemingly impossible when they draw new district lines that are certain to be second-guessed by activist 'judges gone wild.' Then again, that was probably what the five judges in the liberal majority on the Florida Supreme Court had in mind when they struck down Amendment 7," Sanchez said.

In what may be a prelude to legal challenges down the road, dissenting Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston wrote that "The majoritys decision (striking Amendment 7) unduly interferes with a process that is fundamental to our constitutional system of democratic governance."

Frustrated by the current majority of Republican districts, advocates for Amendment 5 and 6 argue that the measures will produce more competitive legislative and congressional districts.

"One party controls two-thirds of both houses. But they don't get two-thirds of the vote statewide. That's because of redistricting," said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow.

"FEA believes that these amendments will lead to a fairer redistricting process, which means more competitive districts. We think that can lead to a Legislature that will be more responsive to a wider range of issues, including education issues," he said.

Jack Scarola, partner at the Searcy Denney law firm in West Palm Beach, says, "Gerrymandering is the single biggest obstacle to truly representative government and the greatest impediment to a properly functioning two-party system."

Scarola said his firm has witnessed "incumbents rigging districts, walling themselves in and ignoring the will of the majority."

Under current redistricting procedures, Scarola said legislators have fallen under the sway of "big business, the medical establishment and banking interests -- it's the haves vs. the have-nots."

But one Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, calls the amendments "nothing more than a deceitful attempt to turn the clock back to the days before 1992 when Florida did not have any African-American representation in Congress."

In fact, it was Republicans who engineered a deal with African-American state lawmakers to carve out minority districts after the 1990 Census. While FairDistricts might sound fair, Brown believes that minority representation would be diluted in the process.

Some say FairDistricts will simply open a Pandora's Box of legal machinations -- good for lawyers, and not much else.

"Sen. Haridopolos may have a point," USF's McKee says. "I can see why any number of lawyers might bring suit if a redistricting -- as it most likely will somewhere in the state just by the fact that equal population must be satisfied -- harms a political party and/or an incumbent."

JMI's Sanchez predicts, "Regardless of the redistricting plan the Legislature devises under the confusing and contradictory mandates outlined in Amendments 5 and 6, protracted litigation is almost certain to follow.

"As a result, in the end, the appointed judges in the judicial branch of government will have an outsized role in the redistricting function that the Constitution properly reserves for the elected members of the legislative branch."

Whether Florida voters will see these legalistic pitfalls under Amendments 5 and 6 is hard to determine, since opposition is largely academic.

On Friday, a political action committee called Protect Your Vote announced it will work to defeat the amendments. But with less than eight weeks to Election Day, it's unclear how much headway the group, chaired by former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, can make electorally.

If FairDistricts wins the required 60 percent of the vote for passage this fall, the attitude on both sides seems to be: We'll see you in court.


Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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