Lawmakers set special session set to draw state Senate districts

James L. Rosica | Naples Daily News Capital Bureau | 07/28/2015

TALLAHASSEE — A lawsuit over the boundaries of Florida’s state Senate maps was settled Tuesday with lawmakers agreeing to hold a special session Oct. 19-Nov. 6 – the third such session this year – to redraw the political maps.

What comes out of that 18-day meeting could reshape the Tampa Bay area’s political landscape.

Three local Senate districts, among others, were cited as unconstitutional gerrymandering by the plaintiffs in the now three-year-old suit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause.

But it’s not yet clear how many surrounding districts could also be affected as the lines shift, requiring an as-yet unknown number of new elections in 2016.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, David King, pointed out what he called the GOP-controlled Senate’s “remarkable” confession in the settlement: They knew their maps were drawn to protect incumbents and favor Republicans.

“They defended the indefensible and it comes to naught today because the Senate has admitted the maps violated the Constitution,” he told reporters in a conference call.

The settlement precludes a trial in the case, set to begin Sept. 25.

“This was a battle that had to be fought,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. The current maps are “an egregious example of greed, influence and naked political ambition.”

The local seats in question are held by Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican; Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate’s top Democratic member; and John Legg, a Pasco County Republican.

Brandes, elected to the Senate in 2012, said he looks forward to addressing the maps. But he repeated his belief that, in his case, representing a district that crosses Tampa Bay actually helps better serve the communities he represents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Joyner, who faces term limits in 2016, said she is “glad that taxpayers will be spared the expense of additional legal fees, and I hope that the new districts will be in compliance.”

King told reporters he intends to ask a judge to order the Legislature to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, which he estimates will be more than $1 million.

Legg, also elected in 2012, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday’s settlement followed a state Supreme Court decision this month in a related case over Florida’s congressional districts, also brought by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

Lawmakers are set to hold a special session Aug. 10-21 to redraw those districts. And they already held a special session in June to finish the state budget.

The court threw out the maps for eight of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying the 2012 redistricting process was “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

In both cases, the plaintiffs said new lines violated the state’s “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments, passed by voters in 2010 to prevent gerrymandering — the manipulation of political boundaries to favor one party.

For instance, the decision targeted the congressional district now represented by Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa, saying it has to be reconfigured “to avoid crossing Tampa Bay.”

But that’s exactly what Brandes’ and Joyner’s districts now do, in order to capture parts of both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The lawsuit over the Senate maps also said Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters from Legg’s district were “packed” into Joyner’s to make it a “majority minority” district and help black voters elect a candidate of their choosing.

Another district being challenged belongs to state Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who represents parts of Indian River, Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

The lawsuit said Negron’s coastal district was intentionally pushed north into Indian River County to “avoid including Democratic voters to the south.”

Negron is vying for the Senate presidency for 2016-18 against GOP state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

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