Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Politics

Legislative leaders agree to redraw congressional districts after election

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislative leaders ended their silence on their rejected congressional map Tuesday and announced they will not appeal a judge's ruling, but will redraw the invalid map, as long as they can wait until after the 2014 election.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz asked Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to clarify his decision about when lawmakers must fix the two districts he ruled violate the Fair Districts standards of the state Constitution, rendering the entire map invalid. Lewis scheduled a hearing in the case for Thursday.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Tuesday that revising the districts in the midst of a campaign season — after ballots have been printed and campaigns launched — would be impractical and disruptive. Elections officials sent overseas absentee ballots by Saturday, before lawmakers announced the decision not to challenge the maps.

"The Legislature will enact a remedial plan consistent with this Court's judgment," the legislators wrote in a motion filed Tuesday. "But even if a remedial plan were enacted today, it would be too late to implement the new districts at the approaching elections. The election process is in full swing."

The two districts directly affected are held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. Surrounding districts, especially the one held by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, are also likely to be modified slightly.

The voter groups that brought the case, led by the League of Women Voters, contend that Florida must not run the next elections on a constitutionally flawed map and want the judge to order an immediate fix.

The voter groups asked Lewis for the hearing to decide how to make the fix. Among the options likely to be considered would be to have the parties submit proposed revisions and let the court decide which to choose.

The legislative leaders cited numerous cases in which courts in other states have allowed elections to proceed when redistricting maps have been held invalid.

"To ensure stability in the election process, the Court should specify that the 2014 elections will be held under the districts established by the Enacted Plan," they wrote.

If the court agrees, Webster and Brown could be re-elected to districts deemed unconstitutional. Absent a special session, the Legislature will next convene after the elections in a November organizational session.

Webster has not commented on the court's ruling, but Brown has vowed to fight it.

The timing of the ruling is a result, in part, of the effort by GOP political consultants to conduct a prolonged fight over discovery documents related to emails and proposed maps.

After a lengthy legal fight that required the voter groups to seek a delay in the case for months until they obtained the documents needed, and a special master to be hired to review the documents, Lewis ruled that 538 pages of those documents could be entered into the record. The political consultants appealed that ruling, which is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

Lewis said in his ruling that the documents proved important for him to conclude the political consultants subverted the redistricting process by creating a shadow map-making process that "made a mockery" of the Legislature's claims of transparency.

He also noted that legislative leaders and the political operatives destroyed almost all of their emails and other documents related to redistricting so the circumstantial evidence surrounding all of those developments — and the evidence that the consultants attempted to influence the same districts he has found problematic — proved the GOP operatives were trying to influence the process.

The delay forced an expedited trial that required parties to submit their closing arguments in writing.

"Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters," Gaetz and Weatherford said in a statement. 

Experts say Lewis could take control of the redistricting process by allowing the parties to submit maps altering the two invalid districts, or have a special master draw a new plan. He could then require candidates in the affected districts to conduct a new qualifying period. But, experts also say, much of that is unlikely.

"It's difficult to imagine this being done before the election," said Jon Mills, a former Democratic House speaker and constitutional lawyer who represented the League of Women Voters in a related lawsuit.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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