Redistricting court hearing begins in Tallahassee

Mary Ellen Klas | Miami Herald | 09/23/2015

TALLAHASSEE - Allegations were flying in a Tallahassee courtroom Thursday as a three-day hearing into the latest congressional redistricting map began with lawyers for the Republican-led Legislature accusing challengers of drawing maps “in the dark,” Congressman Dan Webster tried and failed to “get a seat at the table” and three black communities in Miami-Dade County emerged as ground zero for differences over the final map.

“I have no fear that if we deal with the merits in this case we will satisfy the court,” said David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which successfully challenged the Legislature’s 2012 congressional map that has forced the issue back to court.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis must now decide among seven different maps to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court, which invalidated the Legislature’s map because it was drawn with “improper partisan intent” and violated the constitutional ban on protecting incumbents and political parties.

Lewis must have his recommendation to the Supreme Court by Oct. 17 and ordered lawyers to have their proposed language to him by Oct. 2.

Although Republicans have been united in their defense of their maps until now, the arguments before the court revealed a broadening divide between Republicans in the two chambers — and a harbinger of the fight ahead over the redrawing of the Senate map. The House argues that its map, drawn by three Republican legislative staffers as a base for the discussion, is the purer one and devoid of any partisan intent.

“The evidence is going to show not a shred of proof that political intent affected any of the base map,” said George Meros, lawyer for the House. “When the House made improvements to the base map in the light of day all it did was add to the metrics of the map.”

The Senate argues that the map was “a starting point” and was in need of improvements. It also raised questions about the base map cutting up Sarasota County without any direction from the Supreme Court and suggested that its proposal was the purer alternative.

The hearing began with an attorney for Webster, R-Orlando, trying and failing to get the court to allow him to intervene in the case to “have a seat at the table,” cross examine witnesses and “be part of the discourse.” Webster, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, has said that the changes in both the House and Senate maps violate the constitution because they “disfavor” an incumbent by changing his Republican district into a minority-majority district that favors blacks and Hispanics.

The lawyers for both the challengers and the Republicans agreed Webster’s attempt to intervene was too late. Lewis agreed.

They also agreed that the plaintiffs, the group of Democrat-leaning voters known as the Romo plaintiffs as well as the League and Common Cause, embraced the bulk of the map drawn by both the House and Senate with the exception of Districts 26 and 27, held by U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“They managed to move West Perrine, Palmetto Estates and Richmond Heights into [District] 27 where there was a strong incumbent — Ilena Ros Lehtinen — and they needed to shore up [District] 26,” he said.

According to court documents and rulings so far, Florida’s redistricting legal saga has revealed that legislative leaders and political operatives conspired to draw maps to benefit Republicans. The July ruling from the Florida Supreme Court so broadly attacked the process conducted by lawmakers that the Senate leadership admitted guilt and conceded that its map violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution and ordered a three-week session to redraw the Senate map.

The Senate could call as witnesses Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the primary authors of the chamber’s two maps.

Lee’s modifications to his home county of Hillsborough were adopted in the final map approved by the full Senate. It also provoked House Republicans to suggest that the Senate map may have been drawn to benefit incumbents or Republicans.

Lee told the Herald/Times that he is looking forward to testifying.

“I have clean hands,” he said. “Nobody wants to play show and tell with me.”

He said that the record will show that the Senate, particularly Galvano, “went out of their way to respond to the court’s direction” when they drew the maps.

Galvano, who drew a second Senate map four days after the redistricting session ended in August without resolution, will likely testify that his proposal was designed to be a compromise to accommodate the concerns of the House as well as meet the needs of the Senate to improve the overall base map drawn by legislative staff.

“I hope Judge Lewis looks level-headed and will see what we did in the Senate was devoid of any intention to benefit and our refusal to retreat was based upon a concern of doing so,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, the House succeeded in persuading the judge to allow them to question the drawers of the alternative maps submitted by the challengers. The House tried and failed to persuade the Florida Supreme Court to allow it to open the case for more depositions and discovery because, it said, the challengers’ alternatives to the House map “were drawn, reviewed, discussed, modified, and approved in a closed process, in complete darkness, by national political operatives.”

The court ruled Monday, by a 5-2 vote, to reject the request for additional discovery.

Lewis, however, opened the door for some of that testimony.

“It is an unusual situation,” he said. “What the Supreme Court wants me to do is look at a map and decide which best complies with the constitution … the constitution has this language about intent.”

He said that because he could be “receiving maps from people that are very obvious partisans,” he would allow the Legislature’s lawyers to present evidence and explore the intent of the plaintiff’s map drawers.

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