Challengers ask court to take over Florida's redistricting

MARY ELLEN KLAS AND JEREMY WALLACE | Miami Herald | 08/27/2015

Equating the Legislature’s redistricting failure to a strikeout, the challengers to the state’s congressional map on Thursday called on the Florida Supreme Court to redraw the districts it invalidated and reject the Legislature’s call for more time.

“Faced with the Legislature’s disregard of its mandate, this Court should promptly adopt a remedial plan,” wrote the lawyers for the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters in a motion filed Thursday. “The unique circumstances of the crisis created by the Legislature — hitting foul balls in its first two attempts and now striking out without a swing when given a third opportunity to draw constitutional districts — warrants the remedy requested.”

The motion comes a day after Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis asked the court for guidance following the Legislature ending its special redistricting session last week without enacting a congressional map.

Over the last three years, the courts have ruled three times that lawmakers violated the anti-gerrymandering standards of the state constitution and the errors have cost taxpayers. According to data compiled by the Herald/Times, the legal fees for defending the Legislature’s redistricting maps have added up to $11 million through July.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have asked the Supreme Court to relinquish jurisdiction and allow Lewis to conduct a trial and decide whether the map proposed by the House or the Senate is best.

But Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano added another layer of intrigue Thursday and proposed yet another redistricting map that attempts to appease the House’s concerns by dramatically rewriting the Senate’s final plan.

“It is my hope that this map is something that all my fellow legislators, in both chambers, can support as a compromise, and that we can fulfill our obligation to adopt a Congressional reapportionment plan,’’ Galvano, R-Bradenton, wrote to senators.

Galvano’s plan would leave the district of U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, in Orange County, as sought by the House, and keep 50 of the state’s 67 counties whole. But it also makes major changes to districts in Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties and could end the congressional career of U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee.

Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee, said that he was “open to any idea,” but was willing to wait for direction from the Supreme Court, which is expected to announce by Friday what the next step will be.

The plaintiffs argue that time is running out to get a legally sufficient map completed by the 2016 elections and returning to the Legislature or trial court would be a “delay without significant benefits.”

“Nearly two months have been lost already, and the remaining time before the 2016 elections is far too limited — and the stakes far too high — to delay a remedy based on unjustified and speculative optimism,” they wrote.

The voter group also noted that the Supreme Court has “acquired and utilized Maptitude software,” referring to the popular map-drawing programs used for redistricting, and therefore could “effectively evaluate the data necessary to draw and consider alternative district configurations.”

The court has several options, according to precedent in Florida and other states. It could ask the Legislature to try again, retain jurisdiction and let the trial court solicit proposed maps and recommend which is best. It could solicit alternative maps itself, or it could draw its own map with the help of a mapping expert and its redistricting software.

Galvano’s plan was another sign of how eager lawmakers are to keep the process out of the court’s hands. His proposal would move all of Hillsborough County south of Brandon into a new congressional district with all of Manatee County — now covered by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. All of Sarasota County, now represented by Buchanan, would be pushed into a new 17th Congressional District that would include four other counties — Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and part of Polk — currently represented by Rooney.

Rooney would either have to move farther west to challenge Buchanan, or remain in a new 9th Congressional District that would stretch into Orlando, a heavily Democratic district represented by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando.

The last-minute effort by the Senate would result in so many changes — including requiring that 379,000 people in southern Hillsborough County get a new member of Congress — that it was viewed skeptically by many.

Rooney said the proposal further complicates the redistricting process and he was not going to give it much weight. Buchanan said the changes tinkered with an area of the state the Supreme Court didn’t reject.

“Shouldn’t the Legislature focus on fixing the eight districts that were found in violation instead of the one everyone agrees is a model district?” Buchanan asked.

House leaders have repeatedly said they are not open to negotiating another map and want the trial court to decide. Meanwhile, Galvano said he’s asked Senate President Andy Gardiner to appeal to House leaders and seek one more meeting.

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