Law Student Has Ideas For Florida Districts

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 15, 2011..........In the run-up to last year’s vote on the “Fair Districts” amendments -- aimed at limiting gerrymandering in the once-a-decade redistricting process -- and even after the election, lawmakers have complained that the standards will make the process infinitely more complicated and chaotic.

Even as the last legislative session approached its ending, Senate President Mike Haridopolos cited the likely escalation of legal fees to defend the maps as a reason for a boost in the size of the Senate’s budget.

“Reapportionment costs a lot of money,” said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, “and it'll cost even more with Amendments 5 and 6.”

But even without millions of dollars at his disposal, a 24-year-old Columbia University law school student from a Jacksonville suburb has crafted a congressional plan he says would likely withstand legal scrutiny -- if lawmakers care to adopt it.

Nicholas Ortiz drew the plan as part of a class at Columbia that allowed students to use redistricting software to craft maps for several states. Ortiz chose his home state of Florida and proceeded to carve the state into 27 districts that he says would honor the Fair Districts standards and federal law.

Ortiz’s plan remains the only statewide proposal submitted by a member of the public to the Legislature’s redistricting committees, which begin public hearings on the redrawing of the state’s political boundaries Monday in Tallahassee.

For example, the map makes districts spanning across the northern part of the state more compact. It narrows the district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat whose Jacksonville-area seat represents an area spanning from her home city to Orlando. Brown has bitterly opposed the Fair Districts amendments -- over the objections of normal allies like the NAACP -- on the grounds that they might dilute some minority districts.

It would combine a large part of the Everglades and the Florida Keys into one district meant to combine the state’s “arguably two most marvelous environmental features,” in the words of a memo he wrote defending the plan, into the same seat.

In an email interview, Ortiz said he wasn’t certain how the new districts might affect the partisan make-up of Florida’s Congressional districts, though he suspected it might make far more seats marginal as opposed to increasing or decreasing one party’s share of the delegation.

His map, for example, would move the largely black tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula out of the seat current held by Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, and into the district now represented by Rep. Bill Young, a Republican. Both districts voted heavily in favor of the incumbents in 2010.

“I don't know if switching that population to Young's district would be enough to convert Young's district into one that leans Democrat or Castor's district into one that leans Republican, but the almost certain consequence of that is that both districts would be less ‘safe’ for both Young and Castor,” Ortiz said.

Unlike lawmakers, Ortiz said the standards “did not make drawing a legally defensible plan particularly difficult.” And complying with one of the rules often cited by lawmakers as difficult -- whether a district favors an incumbent or not -- “was easy.”

“I simply did not consider the political impact of what I was doing,” he said.

That might be what lawmakers are worried about, Ortiz suggested.

“I suspect that the complaints about the difficulty of complying with the amendments,” Ortiz wrote, “relate to the practical difficulty of creating a legally defensible plan that is also politically agreeable to a majority of the Legislature.”