Florida Supreme Court sends redistricting case back to lower court

Gray Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 09/04/2015

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court isn’t drawing Florida’s congressional districts — at least not yet.

In a ruling Friday, the court sent the legal fight back to a lower court that will hear arguments from the House and Senate over how the maps should be drawn.

The Republican-controlled Legislature failed to adopt new maps during a two-week special session last month amid squabbling between the chambers.

The ruling held out the possibility for the Legislature to reconvene a special session, but it didn’t extend the period for a lower court review beyond Oct. 17, as requested by the House. If lawmakers can’t agree to new maps by then, the courts would likely have to redraw the districts themselves.

“The Court has an obligation to provide certainty to candidates and voters regarding the legality of the state’s congressional districts,” Friday’s ruling stated. In a statement, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the ruling provided “a measure of certainty” to the process but that he needed more time before deciding his chamber’s next move.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, prodded the House to work with the Senate to pass a formal plan in another session.

“This decision has not precluded the opportunity for the House and Senate to draw a map,” Gardiner said. “As we have expressed since the conclusion of the special session, the Senate is willing to reconvene to fulfill our constitutional obligation.”

The Legislature convened the special session after the Supreme Court tossed out the previous maps in a July ruling, finding that GOP operatives submitted maps under false pretenses to the Legislature intended to favor Republicans. Under 2010 constitutional amendments known as Fair Districts, lawmakers are barred from gerrymandering districts to favor political parties.

The House approved districts developed by three legislative staffers attempting to comply with the court’s July ruling. But the Senate altered the maps to keep Hillsborough County in one district, pushing District 10, which was wholly within Orange County in the House version, into Lake County.

Both the House and Senate worked under the parameters set by the court’s July ruling, which declared that District 5, a majority-minority district that currently runs north-south from Jacksonville to Orlando, had to be redrawn east to west.

That means District 5 would stretch instead from Tallahassee to Jacksonville. The ripple effect would leave Democratic-leaning black voters in Central Florida to be drawn into the surrounding districts – the opposite of what the GOP operatives intended by packing black voters into District 5.

The switch of District 5 could cost Republicans two spots in Florida’s congressional delegation, including the seat of U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, of District 5.

After the session ended, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, offered a compromise solution to the House that kept the Central Florida and Tampa districts the same as in the House map, but altered districts in southwest Florida to keep Sarasota County in one district.

Time is running out for the chambers to get on the same page, however, and the squabbling continues. Attorneys for the House and Senate disagreed as which map would be more likely to be viewed as constitutional by the courts.

No date has been set by the lower court for the hearing, but the Florida Supreme Court will review its recommendations.

Florida’s justices might not have the final say on the issue. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, holder of the District 5 seat, is suing in federal court to stop the change to her district, saying it violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the black vote.

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