Hearing to finally settle Florida congressional districts set to begin

John Kennedy | Palm Beach Post | 09/23/2015

TALLAHASSEE —Three years and two maps after Florida’s Republican-led Legislature first came up with congressional boundaries that were supposed to last for a decade, the battle over district lines goes Thursday before a judge, who will play a key role in the so-far elusive goal of determining a final version.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who last year overturned the district lines set by lawmakers in 2012, will hear testimony about seven maps proposed by the House, Senate and a coalition of voters groups.

Lewis is to recommend at least one set of boundaries to the Florida Supreme Court by an Oct. 17 deadline set by the high court.

Thursday’s hearing, which is expected to spill into Friday, was forced when legislative leaders, all Republicans, clashed bitterly and failed to agree on a plan for Florida’s 27 congressional districts during an August special session.

Lawmakers had gotten along better last year, when they retooled the map after Lewis rejected their 2012 version. But that re-do failed to win approval from Supreme Court justices, which led to the August special session.

After receiving Lewis’ recommendations, the justices are expected to decide in coming weeks what congressional districts will look like for the 2016 elections.

But going into Thursday’s hearing, the House, Senate and voters’ groups remain at odds.

Filings with the court show each side is intent on defending its own proposal, while trashing those submitted by rivals. That means the Republican-led House and Senate also are continuing – this time in legal language — the sparring that collapsed the August special session.

The House has submitted a map almost identical to the staff-drawn “base” map that it approved in August.

The Senate is advancing two proposed maps – one rejected by the House during the special session and another that was never put before lawmakers as it was crafted after the Legislature adjourned. A pair of state senators, Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who helped craft those two maps, may be called to testify before Lewis.

The Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a group of Democratic-allied voters dubbed the Romo plaintiffs also are expected to be pressed by attorneys for the House and Senate about four maps they have submitted.

While the 2012 congressional map was thrown out by Lewis because Republican consultants made what he called a “mockery” of two voter-approved anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments, those amendments and accusations of politics are now being used as a weapon by the House and Senate against maps drawn by the voters’ groups.

The House has submitted a list of potential witnesses for the hearing that suggests it plans to advance the theory that the alternate maps submitted by voters’ groups were drawn intentionally to help the Democratic Party and its candidates. The amendments prohibit gerrymandering that helps a party or incumbent.

Many listed as having already provided depositions in the case are Democratic officials or experts involved in the construction of the four maps.

Among them are Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party; Dave Beattie, a party consultant; Andrew Dreschler, with Strategic Telemetry, a national firm with strong Democratic ties that helped draw maps; and Ellen Friedin, who led the 2010 campaign that resulted in Florida voters approving the anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments.

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