Redistricting ruling could come next week

Brandon Larrabee | The News Service of Florida | 09/28/2015

TALLAHASSEE — After closing arguments in a three-day hearing over the shape of the state’s congressional districts, a Leon County judge said Monday he will try to choose a map to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court next week.

At the same time, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis seemed particularly interested in a sprawling district in North Florida that none of the four sides in the complicated legal proceeding has challenged.

Acting under orders from the Supreme Court, Lewis is considering seven maps to see which plan or combination of plans should be in place for the 2016 elections.

The Supreme Court ruled in July that the existing map, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012 and tweaked two years later, violates a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

Among the seven maps are one proposed by the state House; two floated by the state Senate; three submitted by a coalition of voting-rights organizations that challenged the 2012 map; and one advanced by a group of voters, supported by the Florida Democratic Party, who also sued over the districts.

Lewis’ recommendation will ultimately go back to the Supreme Court.

Many of the arguments on the final day of the hearing focused on a configuration of districts in South Florida found in all three of the legislative maps. Those plans would unite the city of Homestead — something the Supreme Court said lawmakers should do — but in a way that the voting-rights organizations and voters say favors Republicans.

In particular, opponents said the legislative maps are aimed at making it easier for Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo to get re-elected, a violation of the constitutional requirement that redistricting plans not intentionally help an incumbent or a political party.

“What we are doing now is we are dealing with District 26 in a remedial process, where we have a context, where the Republican-controlled legislature has a habit of picking options that perform best for Republicans,” said David King, a lawyer for the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida.

But Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice representing the Senate, said King’s clients and others challenging the map were the ones taking partisan considerations into account. Throughout the trial, legislative aides involved in crafting the South Florida districts have maintained that they didn’t look at the political effects as the lines were being drawn.

Cantero said that met the requirement of “colorblindness” in the so-called Fair Districts amendments that voters backed in 2010.

“You cannot look at reds and blues, you simply look at the map and draw and let the chips fall where they may. ... I submit to you that we have shown that ours were drawn with colorblindness, and they have not shown that,” Cantero said.

There are other disputes as well. The group of voters wants districts redrawn to separate Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch and Democratic Congresswoman Lois Frankel, saying lawmakers seized upon a section of the Supreme Court ruling dealing with the two members as an opportunity to pair the lawmakers together in a district.

And the Senate has pushed for maps that would keep Sarasota County whole and make changes to Hillsborough County as well.

But Lewis seemed just as interested in Congressional District 5, currently represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown. The district, created to make sure that African-American voters could elect a candidate of their choice, now sprawls from Jacksonville to Orlando. The Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to reorient it from east-to-west.

In that case, lawmakers adopted a proposal from the groups that challenged the 2012 map, running the district from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west. The Legislature has pointed to the Supreme Court’s approving comments about that configuration.

But Lewis, who asked questions about the district throughout the hearing, grilled a Senate aide on whether there was another way to arrange Brown’s district.

“Did you look at any other possible configurations of District 5 in an east-west configuration that would be more compact, split up less cities and counties?” he asked Jay Ferrin, staff director for the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

Ferrin said that members had come to him concerned about the district, but he couldn’t find a better way to do it.

“None of the alternatives that I was able to come up with in the amendments that were filed made District 5 more compact or split any less cities or counties,” he said.

Lewis still seemed skeptical and pushed back on lawmakers’ contention that the Supreme Court essentially ordered them to adopt the version put forward by opponents of the 2012 plan.

“They didn’t say this is what we want, go draw it. ... Look at this thing. That’s not a very compact-looking district,” he said.

Afterwards, lawyers for both sides said they didn’t think Lewis was likely to draw his own version of Brown’s district. Cantero said the judge likely doesn’t have that authority under the Supreme Court order.

“I don’t think so, especially when nobody’s really contested CD 5,” he said. “I think he’s going to have to leave well enough alone there.”

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