Senate wise to drop redistricting court fight

Paula Dockery | Tampa Bay Times | 08/01/2015

More jaw-dropping and political landscape-changing redistricting news has emerged — this time affecting the Florida Senate maps. What's stunning is the Senate admitted fault and entered into an agreement to revise the Senate maps and forgo a trial.

Why is redistricting important? Voters should have the right to pick their representatives and not the other way around. This is at the very heart of voters having a voice.

The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that the Legislature violated the Florida Constitution while drawing the congressional map for 27 districts. The court gave specific direction to fix the maps and pointed out eight districts that have to be redrawn.

The Legislature is set to meet in special session Aug. 10-21. This will be its third and, hopefully, final attempt to draw the congressional maps.

A separate lawsuit was filed by the same plaintiffs — the League of Women Voters and Common Cause — challenging the constitutionality of the Senate maps.

After reading the tea leaves from the congressional case, the leaders of the Florida Senate took an unusual action. They assumed responsibility.

The Senate stipulated that certain individual districts were drawn to favor a political party or incumbents. They agreed to fix the maps in a manner consistent with the Fair District amendments now enshrined in the state Constitution.

The state had already spent more than $8 million of our tax dollars defending the maps in court. Another protracted battle for the Senate maps would have been costly and most likely futile. More important, it would have further diminished the trust of the Florida voters.

Both the Leon Circuit Court and the Supreme Court found in the congressional challenge that secretive backroom dealings and infiltration of party and political operatives contaminated the process. The same characters and processes were involved in the Senate map challenge.

There was speculation that Senate maps might also be redrawn during the congressional redistricting special session. The difficulty is that there is no court-ordered direction, so the process will be lengthier. The plaintiffs question 28 of the 40 Senate seats, so a major rewrite is likely.

Interestingly, the House maps were not challenged. It could be because House members did a better job of drawing them to meet Fair District requirements, or because they did a better job of disguising their intent. When the process was exposed through depositions in the congressional challenge, House operatives were involved in the backroom dealing, as well.

Regardless, two major hurdles have been cleared. The Senate has accepted responsibility, averting further cost and delay, and the House and Senate have agreed on a 19-day special session from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6.

Many questions remain.

Will the House follow the established process of allowing the Senate to draw the Senate maps, or will it try to play a more significant role? Will the bad blood between the House and Senate prove a detriment to a smooth session?

How many incumbents will be pitted against each other or be drawn in districts where they will be vulnerable?

How will this affect the Senate president race for 2016?

And most important, can they and will they draw the districts without taking these political considerations into account, as the court directed?

Sen. Bill Galvano, slated to become Senate president in 2018, heads the congressional redistricting committee. Will he also head the Senate committee for the October session? His district is one that is being challenged.

Voters deserved better than the original drawing of the maps. However, I commend the Senate for taking its lumps, ceasing costly legal battles and ensuring the maps will be ready for the 2016 elections. Its leaders showed maturity and accountability.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause were instrumental in forcing compliance with the Fair District amendments by challenging both the congressional and Senate maps in court.

In the end, the Fair District Amendments had a major — albeit tardy — effect on fair representation.

Will this be a lasting lesson?

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