JIM SAUNDERS | News Service of Florida | 09/22/2015

THE CAPITAL - With a Leon County circuit judge ready to hear arguments Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected a request that could have shed more light on congressional redistricting maps proposed by groups that have waged a long-running legal battle against the Legislature.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision Monday, turned down a request from House attorneys to allow additional information-gathering —- through a legal process known as discovery —- about proposed maps submitted by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and a group of individual plaintiffs.

In making the request, the House hoped to gather evidence that the proposed maps were influenced by Democratic operatives or by firms linked to the party. Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis on Thursday is scheduled to start a hearing to consider maps proposed by the House, the Senate, the voting-rights groups and the other plaintiffs.

The Supreme Court in July sided with the voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs in the legal battle about whether current congressional districts drawn by the Legislature violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" amendments approved by voters in 2010. Lawmakers held a special session in August but could not agree on a new map, which ultimately led to the Supreme Court sending the dispute to Lewis, who will recommend to justices a plan for the state's 27 congressional districts.

In court filings this month, the individual plaintiffs, known as the Romo plaintiffs, said they consulted with employees of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while drafting their proposal. The voting-rights groups, meanwhile, proposed maps drawn by an employee of the firm Strategic Telemetry, which also has Democratic ties.

The Supreme Court, in a Sept. 4 order, sent the case to Lewis and also denied a House request for discovery. After the plaintiffs filed the information about their proposed maps, the House on Sept. 17 asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the prohibition on discovery.

"Without apparent shame, plaintiffs have presented to the trial court alternative maps that were drawn, reviewed, discussed, modified, and approved in a closed process, in complete darkness, by national political operatives,'' the Sept. 17 House motion said. "The fact that plaintiffs' maps, despite their origins, are pending before the trial court for a possible recommendation to this (Supreme) Court should dismay and disturb all Floridians."

A key part of the plaintiffs' challenge to the current congressional districts was evidence that Republican operatives played a behind-the-scenes role in drawing the map.

In another Sept. 17 court document, the plaintiffs drew a distinction between their role in submitting proposed maps and the Legislature's role.

"The plaintiffs do not get to draw the maps, and the alternative maps they have submitted are not on trial,'' the plaintiffs' filing said. "Drawing the maps is the job of the Legislature, or alternatively of this (Supreme) Court if the Legislature continues to abdicate its duty."

In its order Monday, the Supreme Court did not detail reasons for denying the House's request for discovery. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry were in the majority. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented.

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