Florida congressional districts now up to judge to sort out

John Kennedy | Palm Beach Post | 09/28/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Attorneys for the Florida Legislature and voters’ groups dueled fiercely over a toss-up congressional district in Miami-Dade County, as a three-day hearing into drawing new boundaries ended Monday.

The seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, emerged as the prime battleground in the case before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. Voters’ groups argue that map-drawers for the Republican-led Legislature worked to keep it on the GOP side.

“The Republican-controlled Legislature has a habit of picking options that perform best for Republicans,” said David King, attorney for the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

But attorneys for the House and Senate defended District 26’s shape.

Legislative staffers testified during the three-day hearing that partisan politics had nothing to do with moving three sizable black communities out of Curbelo’s district into a neighboring one considered certain to elect a Republican, even with the addition of these likely Democratic voters.

Senate attorney Raoul Cantero said the Miami-Dade boundaries, instead, were drawn to avoid the risk of violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

“It can’t diminish the ability of Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice,” Cantero said, urging that Lewis not endorse the proposal from the league and Common Cause, which improves chances that District 26 would elect a Democrat.

With seven maps proposed by the warring sides, Florida’s long-running clash over congressional district boundaries now is left to Lewis to sort out.

The judge is expected to recommend at least one proposal – or a combination of more than one – to the state Supreme Court by next week.

Justices declared the Legislature’s second version of a map unconstitutional in July – a year after Lewis also threw out the first set of boundaries approved by lawmakers in 2012.

When the Legislature failed to agree in August on a third fix, justices stepped in and are poised to approve a plan most likely by Dec. 1, when state elections officials say they must have boundaries in place for next year’s elections.

Lewis’ recommendation also could prove pivotal to Palm Beach County Democratic U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.

Six of the seven maps now before the judge reshape Frankel’s District 22 and Deutch’s District 21, which currently span Palm Beach and Broward counties.

The two, north-south shaped districts would be shifted east-west, with Deutch’s district drawn completely within Palm Beach County and Frankel’s becoming largely Broward County-based, although part of it would cover Boca Raton. A number of Palm Beach County officials came to the Capitol last month to argue against the change – saying they wanted Frankel’s and Deutch’s districts left alone.

John Devaney, attorney for a group of Democratic voters dubbed the Romo plaintiffs for lead client, Rene Romo, argued Monday that testimony from the Palm Beach County voters should be considered when Lewis recommends a map.

The Romo map is the only one that maintains the current, north-south Frankel and Deutch districts. All the others place Frankel’s home in the redrawn District 21 served by Deutch, who also lives there.

Under Florida’s voter-approved anti-gerrymandering constitutional provisions, district lines cannot be drawn that help or hurt a party or an incumbent, Devaney pointed out.

“There is a disfavoring of incumbents in pairing them together,” he told Lewis.

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