GOP Opens Special Session With Complaints That Fair Districts Infringe on Free Speech

Jim Turner[ck_comma] News Service of Florida | The Florida Times Union | 08/11/2015

Senators scolded the Florida Supreme Court for trampling on their First Amendment rights as lawmakers began a special session Monday aimed at redrawing congressional districts the court said were gerrymandered to help the Republican Party.

The special session will mark the third time the Legislature will attempt to craft a map for the state’s U.S. House delegation under the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010. The lines were initially drawn in 2012 as part of the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process, then again last year after a lower court struck down the first map.

But in July, the Supreme Court said the new draft still wasn’t good enough. Justices struck down eight of Florida’s 27 districts as constitutionally flawed. Justices’ standards for how lawmakers should manage the process also prompted strict rules from legislative leaders, leading to the complaints Monday from senators.

“We have to prove up our map and justify the decisions and the districts that are drawn,” Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

Members of both parties indicated they might want to change a staff-drawn “base map” released last week. That map is meant to serve as a starting point for legislative discussions. But the rules for offering amendments to that plan are tedious.

Among the requirements: Lawmakers must reveal everyone who was involved in the drafting of any maps that they submit, and meetings between senators and staff members will be recorded to preserve them for any future litigation. The Supreme Court will ultimately have to sign off on any changes made by the Legislature.

“I’m somewhat troubled by the extent to which I feel like my First Amendment rights as a sitting member of this Senate have been impacted by the court’s decision,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.

The arguments echo those made by a pair of Republican county chairmen who filed a lawsuit in federal court last week seeking to have the Fair Districts amendments struck down on the grounds that they infringe on the right to free speech.

Walton County GOP Chairman Tim Norris and Pasco County GOP Chairman Randy Maggard say legislative attempts to avoid partisan input on the maps had hobbled their ability to weigh in, but they are anxious about doing so because they might get drawn into the legal fight over the maps.

Senators seemed particularly incensed about the idea that meetings with staff members — which are often treated as confidential under a common-law principle — would be recorded and could be exposed.

“We have a right to conduct our business, just the way the court has a right to conduct its business — which I respect,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

He suggested that legislative leaders look at the policy again, “particularly as we get into the Senate maps.” The Legislature will redraw state Senate districts in a special session set to begin in October, after settling a gerrymandering lawsuit about those lines in the wake of the Supreme Court decision over the congressional boundaries.

While Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, agreed with a reporter’s characterization of the current session as a “dry run” for the Senate map, Galvano said the policies surrounding it might be different. The reapportionment chairman said drawing a map following a settlement and drawing one under a court order were different.

“What I’m saying is, don’t assume that the process that we use in the next two weeks is necessarily going to be the exact same process that we use in the Senate maps,” Galvano said. “There may be certain things that are shared.”

Galvano also would not rule out a run at changing the Fair Districts amendments in the future.

“I think you’ve heard from the members,” he said. “We’re sort of the guinea pigs on all of this. … We’re going to have to take a look at it at some point in the future, and the federal courts may give us guidance as well.”

At least one such avenue appeared to close Monday. Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown had used a legal maneuver in federal court to try to use a case challenging her current district to launch a defense of it. Brown wanted to intervene in the lawsuit and get judges to order the Legislature not to reorient the district, which ambles from Jacksonville to Orlando.

But the plaintiffs of that original suit asked Monday to dismiss the case.

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