REDISTRICTING HEARINGS REQUESTED, TURNED DOWN

By JIM SAUNDERS AND JIM TURNER | THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA | 07/17/2015

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE -

Facing political uncertainty after a Supreme Court ruling, 15 U.S. House members sent a letter this week to Florida legislative leaders calling for redistricting hearings across the state.

But as the Legislature prepares to hold a special session in the coming weeks to redraw congressional districts, state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, appeared Friday to nix the idea of hearings. The Florida Supreme Court last week ordered state lawmakers to redraw the districts, and a circuit judge wants the process and a subsequent trial finished by Sept. 25.

"I have asked all of our staff and members to have no contact with congressional members, staff, or consultants during the congressional reapportionment process,'' Crisafulli said in a statement released by his office. "In terms of public hearings, we are responding to a specific court order under a very tight time frame. The court did not contemplate statewide public hearings when they set the timeframe. We will, however, have opportunities for public comment and public testimony."

The request for hearings, sent Thursday to Crisafulli and state Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, came from Republican and Democratic members of Congress from various parts of the state. The Supreme Court ordered that eight districts be redrawn because of violations of a 2010 constitutional amendment —- but the process also will affect other congressional districts.

"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 letter said. "Anything less would be a travesty since the goal is fair representation for all of Florida's citizens."

The letter was signed by Democrats Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, Alan Grayson, Frederica Wilson, Kathy Castor, Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republicans Ted Yoho, Jeff Miller, John Mica, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Ander Crenshaw, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Daniel Webster.

In a 5-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of voting-rights groups, who have long contended that lawmakers violated the state Constitution during the 2012 redistricting process. The 2010 constitutional amendment, known as the "Fair Districts" amendment, was aimed at ending gerrymandering.

The eight districts directly affected by the ruling are represented by Brown, Republican David Jolly, Castor, Democrat Ted Deutch, Frankel, Diaz-Balart, Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen. Leon County Circuit Judge George S. Reynolds III followed the Supreme Court ruling by issuing an order this week requiring that a special legislative session to redraw the districts and a subsequent trial must be finished by Sept. 25.

The letter came amid a similar pending legal fight about the constitutionality of Senate districts drawn in 2012. Reynolds is slated Sept. 25 to start holding a trial in that case.

Attorneys for various parties in the Senate case debated pre-trial issues Friday, with Reynolds turning down a request from Senate attorney George Meros to delay the trial because lawmakers are expected to be busy in mid-August redrawing the congressional map.

"Both recipes came out of the same kitchen," Reynolds said.

A key issue in both cases has been whether Republican political consultants played an improper role in influencing how districts were drawn. Reynolds ordered Friday that some consultants tied to the efforts to redraw Senate lines must provide depositions to attorneys for the League of Women Voters by Aug. 4.

David King, a lawyer representing the voting-rights groups, said after the hearing that the depositions are needed because the Legislature allowed documents involving the consultants to be deleted.

"It's not easy to prove a conspiracy," King said. "Nobody wants to confess to what they've done. So you have to provide it through bits and pieces. But we did that in the congressional map and we'll do it again in this case."

Gardiner, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and possibly Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are among other people expected to be deposed, King said.


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