Resentful legislators fire back at Florida Supreme Court redistricting ruling

MARY ELLEN KLAS[ck_comma] STEVE BOUSQUET AND JEREMY WALLACE Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau | Bradenton Herald | 08/12/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers intensified their criticism of the Florida Supreme Court's redistricting ruling Tuesday as a Republican congressman fought for his political survival and a Democratic congresswoman announced she would file a lawsuit Wednesday to keep her current district.

The drama played out on the second day of a two-week special session to fix the map ruled invalid by the court on July 9. Five of the seven justices ordered lawmakers to redraw the boundaries of eight districts, saying the process was "tainted" by political operatives and violated constitutional mandates that districts do not favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.

In a daylong hearing, legislators reviewed the base map drawn by legislative staffers and focused their criticism on the court's mandate to create an east-west district across a 200-mile stretch of North Florida that would favor the election of an African-American candidate in 2016. The proposed district reconfigures one held by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown since 1992.

"We had a good meeting today, and it has raised some concerns with the members," said state Sen. Bill Galvano, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

"People aren't just ready to rubber-stamp it."

In speeches laced with resentment, lawmakers accused the court of "embedding" a map drawn by Democratic "partisan operatives" in their decision and questioned the court's respect for the separation of powers between the two branches of government.

"How does the court come in here to run roughshod over the Legislature?" asked state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, raised concerns that the court directive to make specific changes smacked of the kind of partisan activity that legislators have been accused of doing.

"If the Florida Supreme Court is basically drawing a map, and they know that the map was drawn by partisan Democratic operatives, how are the justices complying with the Constitution?" Bradley asked.

Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero III, a former Supreme Court justice, gently sidestepped the question and noted that he may have to defend the new map before the court.

"I don't want to make them mad," Cantero said.

Galvano said while legislators may disagree with the court order to draw an east-west map, they could pass it to comply with the state court and hope for a federal court to intervene.

"We still have the potential of a federal claim with regard to the Voting Rights Act and the impact that could have," he told the Herald/Times.

That challenge could come as early as Wednesday. A spokesman for Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, said she would file a lawsuit urging the court "to keep Congressional District 5's boundaries as they are currently."

Brown has argued for weeks the court's directive to shift her district's configuration will weaken the rights of black voters.

The lawyers said the Legislature should redraw Congressional District 5 in line with changes proposed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, two plaintiffs in the case, even though the district's black voting age population would shrink from 50 percent to 45 percent.

"We believe the most prudent thing to do is to have that as a safe harbor and have the east-west configuration," attorney George Meros said.

Meros and Cantero are the lead lawyers advising the House and Senate about the maps the court twice determined were flawed.

Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, dismissed the Republican complaints as "politics. Everyone wants to protect their own territory. That's how we got into this mess."

She said the criticism of the courts could be because the voter-approved Fair Districts amendments that prevent illegal gerrymandering may force lawmakers to draw a map more reflective of the state's political composition.

"There are more Democrats in Florida than Republicans," she said, but the congressional delegation includes 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats. "That's hardly parity."

The staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, Jay Ferrin, defended the base map as legally compact and said he and staff members drew it "in isolation" with "no collaboration" with legislators.

Ferrin said many decisions, such as splitting the city of Clearwater and Sarasota County into two districts, were the inevitable result of trying to protect minority voting rights or keep districts whole.

Several legislators commended the staff for balancing the difficult issues, while some lamented the fact they had no input so far.

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