Florida Congressional redistricting trial closes: What did we learn? What's unanswered?

Mary Ellen Klas | Bradenton Herald | 09/29/2015

Florida's third redistricting trial over the congressional map is reaching its close today. It's try No. 3 for Florida lawmakers after the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the congressional map used in the last two elections as being the product of "improper political intent" in violation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the state constitution.

So, after three days of hearings, what have we learned?

1. The burden of proof has flipped since the last time the congressional maps were the subject of a trial so it's up the the Florida Legislature to show that the maps they have drawn do not violate the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution and do comply with the guidelines set by the Florida Supreme Court.

2. The plaintiffs will argue that the Legislature has not met its burden and the Legislature's lawyers will argue that they have.

"The burden of proof is in the Legislature and they haven't met their burden of proof,'' said David King, lead attorney for the plaintiffs during a break in proceedings Monday. He disputed the testimony of FIU professor Dario Mareno's that the configuration of Districts 26 and 27 proposed by the plaintiffs will "lock out" Hispanic voters and favor blacks or non-Hispanic whites.

He said that the plaintiff's expert report, from American University Professor Allan Lichtman, was not challenged by the Legislature and the evidence shows that the plaintiff's alternative map reduces more cities and counties.

In his closing argument, George Meros, lead lawyer for the GOP-controlled House, countered that. He did not focus on the Legislature's previous defeats but was determined to focus on the chance for victory. He appealed to Judge Terry Lewis' stated respect for the staff map-drawers said the House's decision to adhere closely to the staff-drawn map is the reason it is more politically purse.

"If this court believes that these map-drawers, these individuals, came in here and lied then we lose,'' Meros said. "But at the same time if this court believes that they were telling the truth, then the facts and the law show that we win."

3. Lewis likes Jason Poreda, the House redistricting staff director, even asking his thoughts on the plaintiff's map. But he questioned the east-west District 5 black-majority district proposed by the Legislature as well as the plaintiffs — asking why nobody attempted to draw an alternative to the plaintiff's map but accepted it at face-value. The current District 5 is held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, which cuts through the heart of Central Florida. (Note photo is of Lewis questioning Poreda.)

"Look at this thing, that’s not a very compact district,' Lewis said, as the Senate's redistricting staff director, Jay Ferrin, was on the stand Monday.

"We're satisfied with District 5,'' King said later. "That is the best way it can be done."

4. Both sides believe the final ruling will centers on District 26 in Miami Dade County, the current district is held by Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo. The House and Senate argue that only way to avoid reducing the ability of Hispanics from electing their own candidate is to leave the district more Republican-leaning as they have proposed. Their argument: the district is leaning Democratic and Democrat's won't elect an Hispanic.

"That district is more likely not in the future not tomorrow but today to elect a Democrat,'' said the Senate lead lawyer, Raoul Cantero. "Why is that important?

Because it wont be an Hispanic Democrat." Testimony from expert witnesses, including Florida International University Professor Dario Moreno, indicated that black and anglo voters in the district will not create a coalition behind an Hispanic.

Plaintiffs are expected to argue that their configuration of District 26 results in significantly fewer cities and counties split than the Legislature's plans and will elect an Hispanic. They note that while the Legislature's map-drawers produced 30 drafts, it only made one attempt at drawing District 26.

What don't we know? Primarily: what role did the staff have, if any, in working with the political operatives that both Lewis and the Supreme Court concluded had infiltrated the congressional redistricting process in a way that led to the maps being the product of "improper political intent."

As Herald/Times reported, the plaintiffs had much more evidence of the involvement of the political operatives in attempting to influence the Senate maps than it did for the congressional maps that provoked the court to order legislators back to the drawing board.

"I don't ever know that we'll ever get the complete story on that,'' King told reporters Monday. "As you are aware, we have developed a significant amount of information about the way the Senate redistricting staff had information going out — flowing out from that staff and information flowing in in a way that was improper — and which I conclude caused them to give up and admit that their map was unconstitutional."

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