Florida pols claim legislative paralysis over redistricting requirement

Mary Ellen Klas | Bradenton Herald | 07/19/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's redistricting dilemma grew more complicated Friday as members of the state's congressional delegation asked for statewide hearings and a top state senator warned the court ruling invalidating the congressional map had led to legislative "paralysis."

In a letter to Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, a bipartisan group of congressional members said it would be "a travesty" for legislators to revise the congressional maps without first conducting statewide hearings to get input from the public.

"The opportunity to be heard is particularly important for African-American and Latino communities whose representation and voting power will be impacted by redistricting," wrote Democratic U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, Alan Grayson, Frederica Wilson, Kathy Castor, Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Republican U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho, Jeff Miller, John Mica, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Ander Crenshaw, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Daniel Webster.

Each member of Congress who signed the letter is in a district affected by the redrawn maps.

The idea was quickly rejected by Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who cited the court's tight timeline. The Florida Supreme Court set an Oct. 17 deadline for the Legislature to redo the map and obtain a trial court ruling on it. This week, Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds shortened the schedule even more, ordering the Legislature to finish its map and trial by Sept. 25 in order to meet the high court's deadline.

"The court did not contemplate statewide public hearings when they set the time frame," Crisafulli said in a statement. "We will, however, have opportunities for public comment and public testimony."

In a precedent-setting ruling last week, the court invalidated the congressional map and ordered lawmakers to revise eight of the state's 27 congressional districts. It ruled that the lawmakers violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution because it drew maps with the "intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbent lawmakers."

The court cited testimony and evidence at trial that, despite claims that the process was the most "transparent" on record, showed it allowed political operatives to orchestrate testimony at public hearings and file maps written by political consultants to benefit Republican incumbents.

Crisafulli hinted, however, 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 claims it favored incumbents in violation of the Fair Districts provisions.

"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 President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was not available for comment.

Special session in August

Lawyers for the House and Senate told a trial court judge Friday the Legislature will announce early next week its special session is likely to be conducted in August.

As part of the agenda, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, asked legislative leaders agree on rules governing their behavior for redistricting now and into the future. He suggested, for example, lawmakers log their redistricting conversations and require anyone who testifies before committees be placed under oath.

"It is not just what we do during redistricting, but how and why we do it that matters," he wrote in a letter to Crisafulli, who deemed Rodriguez's request a "political letter" and would not comment.

Crisafulli and Gardiner have been silent on their intentions for calling a special session, but state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the court has led to "a bit of paralysis" on the part of lawmakers and hopes the federal courts will ultimately step in.

"No one will even talk about our legal opinions for fear it will be construed as intent to draw a map," he said. "I've never seen anything like this where the process is so shut down and locked down."

'This system is messed up'

Legal scholars have said that one way to engage the federal courts would be if lawmakers pass a map and someone challenges it as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

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

He said because the court ruled legislator reapportionment decisions are not subject to the traditional privilege in court, there was now enormous tension between the First Amendment rights of legislators, staff and consultants to speak up about redistricting.

Reynolds acknowledged tension during a hearing Friday on a redistricting lawsuit challenging the state Senate map, which was brought by the same plaintiffs in the congressional case, a group of Democrat-leaning groups led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

"Florida's amendment can't overrule the First Amendment," he said.

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