TALLAHASSEE — As state lawmakers meet in the Capitol for a two-week special redistricting session, a bitter fight is brewing across the street at the Leon County Courthouse, where a coalition of voters' groups and the state Democratic Party are suing to derail the Legislature's new maps of congressional districts.
The result of the battle will have statewide ramifications, because it will determine the shape of Florida's 27 congressional districts, including the eight-county, snake-shaped district of Democrat Corrine Brown near Jacksonville.
Brown's district, said Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith, was delivered the "death knell" by a Florida Supreme Court ruling last week that for the first time applied the anti-gerrymandering rules that voters put in the state Constitution in 2010.
The 5-2 ruling by the state's high court referred specifically to state House and Senate districts, not to Congress. But the court, while validating the map for state House districts, rejected the Senate's, raising doubts about much of the approach legislators used when drawing the congressional map.
Even though the court's ruling gave legislators guidelines on how to draw districts, leaders of the Republican-led Legislature said Wednesday that they believe their congressional map is legal and want the lawsuit delayed until after the election.
"It is practically impossible to resolve this case in time for any remedy to be implemented for the impending elections,'' lawyers for the Florida Senate wrote in a brief filed Monday in circuit court.
The lawsuit by the Florida League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida, claims that legislators violated provisions of the new constitutional amendments against protecting incumbents. The suit claims lawmakers "intentionally" enhanced Republican districts in Central and South Florida and accuses them of violating the requirement that districts be drawn compactly. The map, the suit cites in one example, "unnecessarily divides Tampa Bay."
The Supreme Court addressed similar complaints by the voters' coalition when it rejected the Senate map and issued guidelines for fixes.
But legislators said Wednesday that they don't believe the flaws extend to their congressional map and they have no intention of retreating on it unless the court orders them to do so.
"I don't think the Legislature should shadow box,'' said Republican Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee. "To take another shot at the congressional map when we already have an overwhelming bipartisan support for those maps would be a bit presumptuous. Let's wait for all the legal challenges out there, and then let's take our cue from what the court says."
Florida lawmakers were in town Wednesday to begin a 15-day session devoted exclusively to redrawing the Senate map. The Supreme Court ordered the Legislature, among other things, to come up with a system that does not favor incumbents; to change the boundaries of eight invalidated districts, and to determine whether minority districts perform to elect minorities.
In the brief filed Monday, lawyers for the House and Senate invoked a rarely used statute that protects legislators who are lawyers from being deposed or required to respond to legal briefs while in session, saying the lawmakers cannot spend time on the congressional lawsuit.
But lawyers for voters' groups want the court to move quickly. They argue that if the court allows elections to go forward this fall under the proposed districts, it would guarantee that "all Florida voters will suffer the irreparable harm of the election of members of Congress from districts that violate the Florida Constitution.''
The House and Senate convened in session for a total of 30 minutes on Wednesday. The House then adjourned until March 24 — when it will return to vote on the Senate map — and the Senate adjourned until Tuesday, when its redistricting committee will return to vote on its map. Until then, no legislators are officially meeting.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate lawyers filed a petition Monday with the U.S. Department of Justice, which must approve the Legislature's redistricting maps under the federal Voting Rights Act to make sure that minority voting rights are protected.
The lawyers asked federal officials to expedite their decision and approve the House and congressional map in time for candidates to qualify for election during the week beginning June 4. House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, agreed that the congressional map was a blend of the House and Senate approach, but said he stands by the redrawn congressional districts. "We feel very confident they will be upheld just like the House map," he said.
Smith, the Democratic Party chairman, disagrees and expects the trial court to put the redistricting challenges on the fast track.
"We are confident the trial court will see this for what it is," he said, "an attempt to skirt the law for another year."