JUDGE WEIGHS ARGUMENTS AS REDISTRICTING TRIAL STARTS

BRANDON LARRABEE | News Service of Florida | 09/24/2015

TALLAHASSEE - The future of Florida's congressional delegation took center stage Thursday as a hearing on competing versions of U.S. House districts began in a Tallahassee courtroom.

Lawyers for the state House, state Senate, voting-rights organizations and a group of voters supported by the Florida Democratic Party began sparring over seven different redistricting proposals being weighed by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.

The task fell to Lewis after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in July that a plan drawn by the Legislature in 2012 and tweaked two years later violated the state's voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering. The House and Senate failed to agree on a map during a special session last month.

On Thursday, lawyers for the Legislature argued that the maps proposed by the House and Senate were not influenced by politics. The House supports a "base map" drawn by legislative aides without outside input, while the Senate has submitted two maps that differ from the base map in Southwest and Central Florida. In all, Florida has 27 congressional districts.

Much of the fighting was expected to focus on the Legislature's decision to put all of the city of Homestead into the district of Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo. The Supreme Court ordered the House and the Senate to unite the city, which was split between the seats represented by Curbelo and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

David King, a lawyer for the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, pointed out that the Supreme Court ordered the change in Homestead because of the possibility that lawmakers originally split the city to help the Republican Party.

"But they found a way to make it perform even better for the Republican Party in their fix," King said.

Maps submitted by King's clients and the group of voters, who are known as the Romo plaintiffs, would swap different groups of territory between Curbelo's district and Ros-Lehtinen's district.

But George Meros, a lawyer for the House, said the fact that neither King's clients nor the Romo plaintiffs submitted alternative maps to lawmakers during the August special session suggested that the proposals now before the court should be viewed with caution.

"Their maps were drawn in secret," Meros said. "Their maps were never disclosed to anyone. Their maps and their experts never graced the door of the Legislature and came in and said, 'You should do this because it's more compliant.' ... And they just hope that they can do it judicially and not legislatively."

Meanwhile, Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero defended the upper chamber's attempts to preserve a district that would keep all of Sarasota County together —- a common feature of both proposals given to the court by the Senate. The district with Sarasota County was not one of eight specifically highlighted by the Supreme Court in its July 9 decision striking down the congressional map.

"We submit that if a district doesn't have to be redrawn, then it's perfectly all right not to redraw it," said Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice.


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