Legislative friction sends redistricting case back to Supreme Court

Gray Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 08/26/2015

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional districts. They didn’t do it. Now, the state’s highest court will decide whether to give them more time or to let the courts draw the districts themselves.

With the Republican-led House and Senate at odds over redistricting, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis decided Tuesday to forward the unprecedented disagreement to the Florida Supreme Court.

“I’m just going to ask them what they want me to do,” Lewis said. “I just don’t feel that I have any authority to do anything other than to report the situtation.”

In a two-week special session that ended Friday, the House and Senate couldn’t agree to new congressional districts after the court ruled in July that GOP operatives had stealthily submitted maps through proxies favoring the Republican Party, in violation of a constitutional prohibition against drawing new districts favoring political parties.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, leader of Senate redistricting efforts, called the ruling, which withheld jurisdiction to the courts, and the grey legal area currently occupied by the case, “the most unique circumstances I’ve ever encountered.”

The dispute between the chambers trickled down to the lawyers from the House and Senate at the hearing Tuesday. Normally the GOP-controlled chambers will work in tandem on legal matters, but the House filed a motion to have the courts take two months to review the districts it prefers, while the Senate pushed the courts for more time to come to an agreement with the House.

But that would mean another special session and more costs to taxpayers with little hope of reaching an agreement between the chambers.

“It seems very apparent to us that the Legislature is at loggerheads, they cant agree,” said David King, attorney for the League of Women Voters, the left-leaning group that filed the original lawsuit against the maps passed by the Legislature in 2012. “Certainly the Supreme Court may consider that it might have to deal with the problem itself.”

Attorneys for both the House and Senate on Tuesday, however, insisted they’re open to working with each other to pass something. George Meros, a lawyer for the House, said the House is “willing to work” with the Senate, but that “time is of the essence.”

That gave Galvano some hope that a compromised could be reached.

“I’m prepared to see if there’s a compromise map that would put us somewhere in the middle,” said Galvano, who abruptly left talks with the House on Friday, frustrated that House negotiators suggested the Senate’s preferred maps would be frowned upon by the courts.

“To me its squandering an opportunity if we don’t at least give it another try.”

The Legislature technically has until Sept. 25 to pass new districts, with the Florida Supreme Court set to review them in October. But so far, the court doesn’t have anything to review.

Central Florida voters are caught in the middle of the disagreement between the House and the Senate.

The House prefers a “base map” drafted entirely by legislative staffers from both chambers with input from legal counsel from the House and Senate. That map places District 10, currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, wholly within western Orange County, moving his district to one that leans heavily Democratic. House leaders believe not tinkering with the base map will make it more likely to gain favor with the Supreme Court.

The Senate wants to keep eastern Hillsborough County in one district, unlike in the base map, and the ripple effect of that effort pushes District 10 into Lake County, losing more Hispanic voters in central Orange County to District 9.

The Florida Supreme Court, though, might not have the final say on the congressional districts. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, is suing in federal court to prevent the court’s July ruling’s mandate to draw her district from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, instead of the current skinny district running from Jacksonville into Orlando. Brown believes the move would dilute the black vote in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.


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