TALLAHASSEE — Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds rejected a request by the Florida Senate to have the court hire a redistricting expert to redraw the Senate maps, saying "we just don't have enough time left" to hire a newcomer to the process and get the boundaries set in time for the 2016 election.
The quick decision after a 30-minute hearing Friday was a blow to the Florida Senate, whose lawyers argued that by hiring an expert to draw the maps instead of relying on the Legislature or challengers, they could "streamline this litigation and reduce the burden to the parties and Florida's taxpayers."
"It appears to me we just don't have enough time left to engage in any process, other than the one we are currently on," Reynolds said in denying the Senate request. "I do that with some reluctance because I could use all the help that I can get in making this decision.''
He ordered the five-day trial to proceed Dec. 14-18 and said proposed maps must be submitted to court by next Wednesday and discovery — including questioning of legislators — can proceed after that.
If the court had agreed to hire one of the three university professors recommended by the Senate, it would have given the Senate a tactical victory in the bitter redistricting fight.
Although there were only slight differences between the House and Senate over the final proposed maps, they were significantly different from those offered by the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs' maps create more competitive districts than either the House or Senate maps and bring the 40-member chamber to near parity between Republicans and Democrats. By contrast, the map that passed the House could give Republicans a 22-18 advantage, while the plan that passed the full Senate gives the GOP a 23-17 advantage.
If a redistricting expert were allowed to start from scratch, that could have undercut the ability of either side to get their map adopted. It also could have shielded from the record depositions and evidence about how the maps were drawn during the special legislative session. At issue is whether or not lawmakers were engaged in drawing districts to protect incumbents.
At least one powerful senator has called into question the process used by lawmakers. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said during the session that he had "lost confidence" in the Senate's legal team and called the starting base maps that came from the House and Senate a "defiant" attempt to ignore the rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.
He also said he was willing to testify about the decisions that were being made behind the scenes regarding the map-drawing process.
"I'm going to plead the fifth and go into the witness protection program," Lee told the Times/Herald at the time. "I will be a witness for David King. I hope they ask the right questions because I'll tell the truth. I know how we got here today."
King, the attorney representing the challengers — the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida — urged the court to reject the Senate request, saying it violated the consent order the Senate signed in July. Legislators called the special session to redraw the Senate map after agreeing to end the lawsuit from King's clients and conceding they had violated the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the state constitution when they drew the map in 2012.
When lawmakers ended the session with no agreement, the burden fell to Reynolds to hold a hearing on how to redraw the map.
King said the argument by Senate lawyers that conducting a five-day trial was too expensive is "an amazing recognition on behalf of the Legislature… after they spent $11 million defending their unconstitutional maps."
He said "what's obviously at play here" is the House and Senate "don't want to defend" the maps they passed and claimed were constitutional during the legislative session.
The challengers have suggested that even though the Senate admitted to unconstitutionally protecting incumbents in the 2012 map, legislators continued to violate the Fair Districts provisions to the state constitution when they drew the latest plans.
Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice who represents the Senate in redistricting litigation, argued Friday that bringing in a "neutral" outside expert "would give the public the greater confidence that whatever plan is adopted for the state Senate districts for the state of Florida is a neutrally drawn map."
Reynolds read from the Florida Supreme Court's July 9 opinion, which invalidated the congressional redistricting map and said the burden was on the Legislature to defend the map as "not motivated by improper intent."
He suggested that during trial he will attempt to have facts established about each district and he will appeal to the map drawing experts of the Legislature and the challengers when proposing an alternate map. He said he would like to narrow the discussion to the differences between the proposed maps and hopes to piece together a "constitutional map" that meets all the criteria of the court and the Fair Districts provisions of the state constitution.
"But the ship has sailed," he said. "We're on the sea and we hope to hit land sometime by the end of December.''
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.