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John Kennedy | Palm Beach Post | 09/04/2015

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court declined to take over congressional redistricting Friday, instead ordering a lower court to hold a hearing on proposed maps.

Justices also held out the possibility that the state House and Senate could again attempt to agree on boundaries. But the court held firm to an Oct. 17 deadline it set earlier for the lower court or Legislature to finalize a map.

Since last year, two congressional plans have been ruled unconstitutional by courts and last month, a 12-day special session of the Legislature collapsed without the House and Senate agreeing on lines for the state’s 27 congressional districts.

Maps advanced last month by the two chambers dramatically reworked seats held by Palm Beach County Democratic Reps. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.

Under the proposals, Deutch’s district would be moved completely within the county, losing its Broward County voters, while Frankel’s would become more Broward-based.

Despite rising tension between Republican leaders in both chambers, justices Friday encouraged them to renew work.

“Sufficient time exists for the Legislature to accomplish this task before the matter is scheduled for a hearing before the trial court, should the House and Senate agree to convene for another special session,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in the ruling.

He added that the task of congressional redistricting “falls first and foremost upon the Legislature.”

Voters’ groups, led by the Florida League of Women Voters, successfully challenged earlier boundaries, with a trial court and the Supreme Court ruling that Republican leaders violated constitutional standards prohibiting gerrymandering which helps a party or incumbent.

Justices, though, dismissed a request by the voters’ groups that the Supreme Court now begin the line-drawing.

Instead, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is expected to schedule a hearing to review maps already proposed by the House and Senate, along with other possible submissions.

“The trial court shall then make a recommendation” to the Supreme Court which map – “or which portions of each map” best meet constitutional requirements, the court majority wrote.

“However, the Legislature is not precluded from enacting a remedial plan prior to the time the trial court sets for the hearing,” the court majority wrote, adding a nudge to Labarga’s prodding.

But Labarga, who wrote his own, concurring opinion in the case, pointed out that if lawmakers can’t do it, “the judiciary must take steps” to assure that a map is in place.

Reaction from the warring parties in the case was measured.

“We very much appreciate the Florida Supreme Court’s guidance and look forward to appearing before Judge Lewis to ensure that Florida’s citizens have a constitutionally compliant congressional map for 2016,” said David King, attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause-Florida.

Since last month’s failed special session, the Senate has tried to jump-start talks with the House on reconvening.

Senate Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, submitted a new, compromise map to his House counterpart, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, which was generally praised, but also downplayed as too late.

In its filing with the Supreme Court, the House was seeking the hearing before Lewis to make a case for its map – but also wanted to stretch the Oct. 17 deadline, which justices refused.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also has been seeking a meeting with House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, to argue for lawmakers taking another special session stab at map-drawing.

But Crisafulli is wary of the Senate. The two sides have sparred steadily this year over Medicaid expansion, the state budget and now redistricting.

A special session to draw Senate district boundaries already is slated for October. Crisafulli was noncommittal Friday about bringing lawmakers back to the Capitol for another go at congressional districts.

“We look forward to further reviewing the order to determine our next steps,” Crisafulli said.

Gardiner, however, used Friday’s ruling to renew his sales pitch for another special session on the congressional plan.

“As we have expressed since the conclusion of the special session, the Senate is willing to reconvene to fulfill our constitutional obligation,” Gardiner said.

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