Crisafulli rejects call for traveling hearings on redistricting; Lee says process is in paralysis

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times | Tampa Bay Times | 07/17/2015

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said no Friday to the request from members of the state's congressional delegation to conduct public hearings around the state on redistricting before a special session.

"We are responding to a specific court order under a very tight time frame,'' Crisafulli told the Herald/Times in a statement. "The court did not contemplate statewide public hearings when they set the time frame. We will, however, have opportunities for public comment and public testimony."

Crisafulli hinted, however, that the request for the hearings could be viewed by the court as an attempt by the congressional members to influence the Legislature and make the map vulnerable to interpretations of being done to favor incumbents, in violation of the Fair Districts provisions of the state Constitution.

"I have asked all of our staff and members to have no contact with congressional members, staff, or consultants during the congressional reapportionment process,'' he said. Senate PresidentAndy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was not available for comment.

Lawyers for the House and Senate told Tallahassee Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds on Friday that they expect lawmakers to announce the dates of a special session early next week. Early reports are that it will be called for Aug. 10-21.

Also Friday, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said that the court ruling had resulted in "a bit of paralysis" on the part of lawmakers.

"No one will even talk about our legal opinions for fear it will be construed as intent to draw a map,'' he told the Herald/Times. Lawmakers are "afraid to answer their phone," or be in public.

"I've never seen anything like this where the process is so shut down and locked down,'' he said adding that because the court ruled that legislators' reapportionment decisions are not subject to the traditional privilege, they are "inhibited even about process.''

He said the ruling had resulted in enormous tension between the First Amendment rights of legislators, staff and consultants to speak up about the redistricting and the Fair District amendment, which prohibits maps drawn with the intent to favor incumbents or political parties.

"Free speech is a funky, fragile thing,'' he said. "This system is messed up and, absent some federal court stepping in, I don't see any justice coming out of this."

Lee said he told Gardiner that he believes the process will continue to be mired in confusion until someone files a lawsuit that asks a federal court to step in and rule on the Florida court's ruling.

Lee said the decision by the Florida Supreme Court was "clear that the Supreme Court thinks the Florida Legislature is fundamentally corrupt,'' Lee said.

But, he added, many unanswered questions remain.

"How do you respect the [federal] Voting Rights Amendment and say you can't draw a district that favors a political party when most African American districts favor Democrats?" he asked.

"Federal judges don't run for office. They tend to be more objective and they have a broader perspective on the Voting Rights Act."

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