Trial over Florida Senate maps begins with 29 incumbents in limbo

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Mary Ellen Klaas

Published December 15, 2015


TALLAHASSEE -- The weeklong redistricting trial scheduled to begin in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday will determine the fate of Florida’s 40 Senate districts and the future of the 29 incumbents seeking reelection.

The rare political scramble is forcing all of them back onto the ballot in November, including many of whom thought they could sit out this election because they were elected to a four-year term in 2014. And they each want to know: Who will have to move to get reelected, who faces new competition and who faces new communities to represent?

The remaining 11 senators are not seeking reelection because they are either leaving because of term limits, or seeking another office.

It is the vestige of the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution that were approved by voters six years ago, and the districts remain in limbo because legislators admitted to manipulating the political boundaries three years ago to benefit Republicans — in violation of the amendments — then tried and failed to redraw the Senate map during a three-week special session.

Now, the job of preparing a new map is left to Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds, and he has only a week to do it. Both sides have submitted maps and each will accuse the other of drawing a map with improper partisan intent.

Reynolds has warned that the compressed time frame will limit the amount of time Legislators and challengers — a coalition that includes the League of Women Voters and a group of Democrat-leaning voters — have to make complicated arguments over voting performance and political intrigue.

Both sides have attempted to streamline the arguments, but the list of potential material is enormous. The Legislature’s lawyers objected to 859 exhibits offered up for submission by the challengers — including draft maps, transcripts, emails and a letter from the Senate redistricting staff director suggesting that one senator asked him to draw a map revising a district that had drawn two Republicans together.

Reynolds will decide if lawyers for the Republican-led Legislature be allowed to introduce maps drawn in 2011 that they claim were designed to help Democrats. Will the challengers be allowed to introduce testimony from Sens. Jack Latvala and Tom Lee that attempts to influence the Senate presidency fight had a bearing on the map approved by the Senate — even though it was not submitted to the court?

Only one senator is scheduled to testify: Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. But the depositions of Lee, Latvala and possibly Gardiner could be part of the record.

Both sides have agreed they won’t get into the question of why the Legislature failed to update its computer mapping data to include the primary election data from 2012 and 2014, data the challengers said would have shown they could draw a black majority district in Hillsborough County that didn’t have to cross Tampa Bay to pick up minority communities in Pinellas County.

The plaintiffs have prepared four maps they say the court should accept while the Senate has prepared just one, a map that was drawn on Oct. 24 but was never offered up for a Senate vote.

The Legislature’s lawyers will try to show that the principal map-drawer for the challengers, John O’Neill, drew the maps with the goal of favoring Democrats. They allege that the maps were designed to intentionally pack Republicans into districts in an effort to make adjacent Democratic seats more competitive for Democrats — an allegation similar to the one that has been lodged against the GOP-drawn maps of the last 23 years.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs are expected to try to show that the Senate couldn’t help itself and allowed the Senate leadership battle to influence the maps it produced. Lee, R-Brandon, had complained that he had “lost confidence” in the Senate’s legal team because the maps drawn by staff appeared to be a “defiant” attempt to ignore the rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.

He also testified about the role the Senate leadership fight had on the Legislative impasse, alleging that Latvala attempted to draw maps to help his supporters and, when that didn’t succeed, had his supporters vote against the final Senate map.

“We were engaged in a legislative leadership battle,” Lee said in a deposition. “Although that battle imploded the moment Senator Latvala couldn’t get the maps he wanted over the weekend, he was nonetheless just as frustrated with his Senate president for his refusal to put his thumb on the scale on his behalf. And he took those maps down.”

Lee did not mention that after Latvala conceded he had lost the leadership battle, many of his supporters remained opposed to the Senate map. He is not expected to testify.