Redistricting court drama resumes; Supreme Court to review next month

Gary Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 09/25/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers sparred over Florida's congressional districts in court Thursday, the latest episode of a three-year battle that has left the state without political boundaries for the 2016 election.

The case is in court because the Florida Supreme Court threw out the prior maps in July, ruling that GOP operatives had infiltrated the redistricting process and packed Democratic voters in District 5, a skinny district that snaked from Jacksonville to Orlando.

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will now consider as many as seven proposals for the maps submitted by both chambers of the Legislature, the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.

The trial will continue into next week, and Lewis will make a final decision and send it to the Supreme Court for review by Oct. 17.

Already, litigation and special sessions related to redistricting have cost taxpayers about $11 million.

Attorneys for the League of Women Voters defended their proposal Thursday after attorneys for the Florida House and Senate noted that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reviewed the map before it was filed, a violation of the state constitution's anti-gerrymandering provisions.

David King, a League of Women Voters attorney, said it didn't matter whether there was Democratic involvement in its map drawing. The Legislature's proposed districts are on trial, not the plan from the league, he said.

But lawyers for the Legislature argued it was unfair to apply the prohibition against partisan gerrymandering to lawmakers but not to the plaintiffs.

"We have the right to test theirs just as they have the right to test ours," Florida House attorney George Meros said.

Lewis eventually decided he would consider the evidence of Democratic involvement.

The judge, meanwhile, rejected as too late a motion from an attorney for U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, to intervene in the case.

Webster appeared before lawmakers last month to criticize maps designed to comply with the court's order, arguing that they, too, were gerrymandered. The plan would move more Democrats into his district, so many that he has said it would be impossible for him to win there.

In court Thursday, Republican leaders in the House and Senate each argued for dueling maps their chambers had approved during a special session. The Legislature's inability to agree prompted the Supreme Court to order the issue back to the courtroom.

The plans clash over Central Florida, with the Senate preferring to shift District 10 into Lake County, shedding Democratic voters in Orange County and moving them into District 9.

"Except for that Central Florida area, we agree with the House," Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero said.

And Jason Poreda, one of three legislative staffers for the House who drew the districts, parried questions from League of Women Voters attorneys over how he shifted parts of South Florida districts to comply with the court order.

Despite the battle in state court, a federal judge could have the final say over the how the state's 27 congressional districts turn out. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, has sued over the July ruling. She says the changes mandated to her district would diminish the ability of black voters to elect a black candidate in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

And there's yet more redistricting in store for lawmakers, who are scheduled to gather for another special session next month to redraw state Senate districts — again because the courts ordered them to do so.

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