On eve of redistricting hearing, group asks for new election dates; Legislature calls move ambush

Matt Dixon | Florida Political Fix | 07/25/2014

In a move the Legislature called an “ambush,” a coalition of plaintiffs asked a judge Wednesday to change the 2014 election dates to ensure there is time to redraw the state’s congressional districts.

After a two-week trial, Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis earlier this month ruled two of Florida’s 27-congressional districts were at odds with a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 that aimed to take politics out of the redistricting process.

On the eve of a Thursday morning hearing set to decide what happens next, plaintiffs, led by the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed a motion asking Judge Terry Lewis to change the 2014 election dates to give the court time to draw new maps.

“The citizens of Florida have already endured elections under gerrymandered districts after Legislature blatantly disregarded their will,” read the motion.

Because that 22-page motion was filed one day before the scheduled hearing, attorneys for the Legislature filed their own motion at 4:35 p.m. asking that plaintiff’s newest motion not be considered at the Thursday hearing.

“To hold a hearing upon less than 20-hours’ notice and deny defendants time to evaluate…would violate defendants’ rights,” read the motion.

It said plaintiffs were trying to “surprise and ambush” the Legislature.

In their motion, attorneys for the plaintiffs offered suggested changes to the election calendar that would move primary and general election dates, but ensure the election was held in 2014. They argue if it’s not possible to redraw the maps and hold a 2014 election, the court should call a special election “at the earliest opportunity.”

Earlier this month, attorneys for the Legislature asked Lewis to clarify that his ruling would not impact the 2014 election. They say with candidate qualifying over and absentee ballots already in the mail, it would be too difficult to alter the election day.

The two sides also disagree on who should redraw the maps.

Plaintiff’s attorneys said that because the court found that lawmakers worked with political consultants to draw maps that favored the GOP, they should not be tasked with the re-draw.

“The evidence showed that Legislative Defendants, when entrusted with the task of redistricting, intentionally beached hat trust,” read the motion.

They have asked the court, or a third-party expert redraws the maps. If lawmakers do redraw the congressional lines, the plaintiffs want the court to implement specific guidelines.

In their court filing, attorneys for the Legislature say it’s that lawmaker’s responsibility.

“The Florida Legislature has stated that it will enact a redistricting plan in full compliance with the court’s final judgment,” it read. “No one else has the power to do so.”

Included in the plaintiff’s filing was a proposed map that wipes out the district currently held by U.S Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat. Her seat, which snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando, was found unconstitutional by Lewis and is considered a poster child for gerrymandering.

During the trial, plaintiffs said map-drawers boosted the number of black voters in Brown’s district to make surrounding seats more Republican-leaning.

Just over half of her district consists of black voters.

During the trial, legislative leaders and redistricting staff said they wanted to get over the 50 percent threshold to avoid a race-based legal challenge.

The map filed by plaintiffs would stretch Brown’s seat from Jacksonville west to the western portion of the Panhandle. The new seats black voting age population would drop to 45 percent, which will likely be met with opposition from Brown and the NAACP.

The other seat Lewis found unconstitutional is held by Orlando Republican Dan Webster. Plaintiff’s proposed map removes a “finger-like appendage” that the court said helped pack the district with Republican voters.

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