Judge suggests redistricting challengers have to show their maps aren't politically biased
Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds warned the challengers in the Senate redistricting case Tuesday that they will have to show that the maps they have submitted were not tainted by improper partisan intent, as they are accusing the Senate leadership of doing.
"You should be held to virtually the same standard out of fairness,'' Reynolds told the lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause at a 30-minute scheduling hearing in preparation for the five-day trial that begins Dec. 14.
The two groups have sued the Legislature along with a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters for violating the anti-gerrymandering standards of the state constitution when they drew the 2012 map.
The lawyers for the GOP-led House and Senate say that the four maps submitted by the plaintiffs were drawn by a redistricting consultant with ties to Democrats and were designed to intentionally pack Republicans into districts.
Based on the results of the 2014 presidential election, the Legislature says the plaintiff maps give Democrats a 21-19 advantage in the Senate. Other analyses suggest that the plaintiffs' four proposed maps each create a 20-20 partisan split as Republicans retain the advantage because of incumbency and money.
But lawyers for the coalition plaintiffs argued that the Florida Supreme Court has ruled in the congressional redistricting case that the burden of proof rests on the Legislature to show that its maps were not drawn to protect incumbents or to favor a political party. According to the 2014 general election returns, the map proposed by the Senate -- but not passed by the Legislature -- would create 23 Republican-leaning districts and 17 Democrat-leaning districts.
"The alternate maps are not on trial,'' said Tom Zehnder, lawyer for the challengers. "The Supreme Court made that clear ...We don't agree that burden is the same. They have the burden of proof. We do not. Our alternate maps provide alternate configurations which we think are better."
But Raoul Cantero, lawyer for the Senate, urged the judge to reject that argument.
"Whichever map you pick, whether it's our or theirs, has to comply with the constitution,'' he said.
Reynolds agreed: "That seems to me to be the wiser course."
Reynolds also said he was concerned that he may be forced to choose between the proposed maps, rather than piece an alternative together.
"Because of the time constraints, this court has really pushed into a corner in terms of picking a map,'' he said. "We all know if you move one piece of the puzzle, the other pieces of the puzzle could move. We don't have several days to try to figure something out because of the complexities and I'm concerned about that."
But, he noted, all the maps could be "contaminated" with improper intent.
Cantero suggested the alternative is to hire an independent special master to draw the maps, an idea Reynolds was asked to consider but rejected because of the time delays. The Legislature agreed in July that its 2012 redistricting map violated the constitution and scheduled a three-week special session to draw a replacement map in time for the 2016 elections.
After lawmakers failed to agree upon a map, the trial court was handed the job, which must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court by early next year.
Zehnder noted that Judge Terry Lewis approved a congressional map drawn by the same map drawers used in the Senate case and concluded it did not favor incumbents or political parties. He said he expects Reynolds will conclude the same thing.
"That is my great hope,'' Reynolds said.