Florida judge rejects delay of trial over state Senate districts

The Palm Beach Post | The Palm Beach Post | 07/11/2015

TALLAHASSEE — A week after the Florida Supreme Court overturned the state’s congressional boundaries, a Leon County judge Friday began balancing the impact of that ruling on a looming challenge to state Senate districts.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds set tight time-frames for completing depositions from critical witnesses and showed little support for a bid by the Legislature’s attorneys to delay the trial, now set to begin Sept. 25.

“My inclination is that we’re going to proceed,” Reynolds said.

The Supreme Court’s 5-2 ruling last week has caused a tectonic shift in Florida’s political landscape.

The court agreed with a trial judge that Republican political operatives helped guide the 2012 crafting of the state’s congressional district map, violating voter-approved bans on the drawing of boundaries that help or hurt a political party, or protect incumbents.

Justices ordered the redrawing of eight districts, including those held by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

But because recasting any district affects neighboring seats, as many as 20 of the state’s 27 congressional districts are likely to be affected, experts said.

In the ruling, the court also ordered lawmakers to hold a special session and complete the re-do by Oct. 17.

Legislative leaders have been silent since the ruling, not saying when they would reconvene. But Reynolds lit a fire under them this week, ordering that the congressional-map redrawing and any subsequent legal challenges be finished by Sept. 25, so the trial over the Senate map can proceed.

“It’s physically not possible,” legislative attorney George Meros argued Friday, saying he planned to file a formal motion seeking a delay in the Senate case.

Meros told Reynolds that if lawmakers are working to redraw the congressional map, many would be unavailable to prepare or be questioned as the Senate case heads to trial.

Reynolds wasn’t persuaded. He offered only, “We will adjust accordingly.”

Although an announcement isn’t expected until next week, lawmakers have discussed setting aside a two-week window beginning Aug. 10 for a special session on congressional redistricting.

It would be the second special session of the year.

Lawmakers were forced back to the Capitol for three weeks in June after ending the two-month regular session a month earlier without a state budget, the only bill they must approve annually.

The court’s overturning of the congressional plan is already prompting one incumbent, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, to reconsider his future. Jolly, whose seat is expected to gain thousands of new, minority Democratic voters when redrawn, is poised to announce next week that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential contender.

The Supreme Court’s condemnation of the multi-county, north-south district held for 23 years by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, also is likely to cause more political dominoes to tumble. The court has told lawmakers the district “must” be reconfigured to run from Jacksonville toward Tallahassee.

Brown and 14 other congressional incumbents, including Frankel, wrote House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, urging Friday that public hearings take place around the state before the congressional map is redrawn.

“The opportunity to be heard is particularly important for African-American and Latino communities whose representation and voting power will be impacted by redistricting,” the congressional members wrote.

“Anything less would be a travesty, since the goal is fair representation for all of Florida’s citizens,” they concluded.

The request was quickly rejected, however, by Crisafulli.

Prospects that the map of Senate districts will survive legal scrutiny also appears a long shot.

During 12 days of testimony in a trial last year, email and other evidence showed that during the Legislature’s redrawing of congressional districts, Republican Party consultants were given preview looks at proposed boundaries from legislative staffers and possibly secretly submitted GOP-favoring maps at public hearings.

Attorneys for the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause, La Raza and individual voters challenging the Senate boundaries were told to complete depositions by Aug. 4 with several operatives and private citizens believed to be involved with the proposed Senate maps.

Legislators and staff in last year’s trial also admitted to deleting critical email and taking part in closed-door redistricting meetings with top Republican Party officials in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

The judge in that trial, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, called the Republican effort a “mockery” of the once-a-decade redistricting process and the so-called Fair Districts amendments approved by voters in 2010.

He ordered the congressional map redrawn but in a more limited way than the justices ordered last week.

Many of the same actions that Lewis and justices said poisoned the congressional map-making are expected to emerge in testimony at the upcoming trial, endangering the future of boundaries for the Senate, where Republicans hold a 26-14 seat advantage.

In comparing the congressional and Senate plans, Reynolds noted Friday, “Both recipes came out of the same kitchen.”

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