Judge wants court direction in redistricting case

Brandon Larrabee | News JAX | 08/26/2015

A Leon County judge will ask the Florida Supreme Court how to move forward with a redistricting lawsuit after the Legislature failed to draw new congressional lines in a special session that collapsed last week.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis told lawyers for the House and Senate at a conference Tuesday that he wants to hear from the justices before deciding what to do next.

Lewis was supposed to hear arguments over any congressional map that lawmakers approved before the long-running redistricting case would have returned to the Supreme Court.

"I just don't feel that I have any authority to do anything other than to report the situation," Lewis said.

The Supreme Court struck down eight of Florida's 27 congressional districts last month, arguing that the lines violate the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by voters in 2010. A nearly two-week special session to craft a new plan fell apart Friday when the House and Senate disagreed over whether to consolidate eastern Hillsborough County into one district and to keep all of Sarasota County united in another.

The House went to the Supreme Court on Monday to ask justices to give Lewis the power to consider maps from the House and the Senate, as well as from voting-rights groups that challenged the current lines. The House also asked for a little more time. The process is currently set to return to the high court no later than Oct. 17.

The Senate has pushed for another special session to give lawmakers a chance to craft the lines and filed a brief Tuesday with the Supreme Court saying Lewis already has the authority to consider alternative maps.

"To me it's squandering an opportunity if we don't at least give it another try," Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said after Tuesday's hearing.

Galvano also seized on a statement by George Meros, an attorney for the House, to say that there might be an opening to negotiate a new map. But Meros' discussion in court also highlighted the House's skepticism about the process.

"The House is certainly willing to continue to engage with the Senate and see if there's a way to come up with an enacted map, but as we said in our motion, time is of the essence, and so we don't see a clear path to that," Meros told Lewis.

David King, representing the groups that challenging the districts, also didn't sound optimistic.

"It seems very apparent to us that the Legislature is at loggerheads," King said.

He suggested that the Supreme Court might decide to draw the lines on its own, now that the Legislature has failed to do so. King also said his clients would offer a plan "that will be a little different" than those crafted by the lawmakers —- hinting that they would draw a different district for South Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo.

During the redistricting session, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida said the Legislature was trying to shield Curbelo from having his district tilt toward Democrats by the way proposed lines were shifted to comply with part of the court's order.

After the hearing, King said he didn't have a preference about whether Lewis or the justices ultimately decide which map to use, or whether to draw a separate one.

"The most important thing here is the speed of the process," King said. "And that may speak in favor of the Supreme Court dealing with it. Because it's just so important that we gets this taken care of and in place for the 2016 elections."

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