Friday, May 25, 2018
Politics

Redistricting trial ends but conclusion is far from certain

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's precedent-setting redistricting trial came to a partial close Wednesday as lawyers wrapped up by agreeing to submit their closing arguments to the judge in writing in the next week.

It was an unconventional ending to a 13-day trial that lifted the veil on the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries. The testimony showed that the process, touted by legislators as historically transparent, was rife with murkiness.

A map was filed under a fraudulent name and no one is investigating. Legislators testified they routinely deleted redistricting records. A legislative staffer admitted giving a flash drive of maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they became public. Phone records of a House speaker and his right hand man, sought for more than a year, were never produced. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.

Will the secrecy that clouded the process be enough for the court to force a rewrite of the 2012 congressional map approved by legislators and signed by the governor before the midterm elections?

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will now decide, and a ruling is expected by the end of the month.

If Lewis invalidates the maps, it could force the state's congressional boundaries to be redrawn even before the midterm elections, but that is unlikely to have an impact on the November election. The case is expected to be appealed and ultimately resolved by the Florida Supreme Court, and any change in the political lines for Congress is expected to have a ripple effect on other races, though not until the 2016 cycle.

"It's likely whatever happens here, it'll be appealed one way or another," Lewis conceded at the close of the trial.

The plaintiffs, a coalition of voters groups led by the League of Women Voters, say if anything proves illegal map drawing, it was this case. They argue that Republican legislators and staffers collaborated with political consultants to create "a shadow redistricting process" that protected incumbents and the GOP in violation of the Florida Constitution.

They relied on hours of expert testimony to argue that the maps attempted to pack Democrats into several safe seats, while giving the GOP districts designed for Republicans to win comfortably. They singled out districts held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, as being intentionally packed with minorities in an attempt to make the surrounding districts held by Reps. John Mica, R-Winter Park, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, safer for Republicans.

Plaintiffs lawyer John Devaney said those and other examples prove the partisan bias that the Florida Supreme Court has ruled nullifies the maps under the "Fair District" standards.

Legislative lawyers counter that the political shenanigans are just a sideshow and don't prove legislators broke the law. They say the lawyers for the voters' groups never established a link between the political operatives and the final maps, and the presiding officers of the Legislature testified under oath they didn't violate the law.

"They all have said they did not intend to favor or disfavor any party or incumbent and we think that all the parties have done here is put up innuendo,'' said Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice who is representing the Senate.

The case is the first time legislators were bound by the new Fair District rules prohibiting them from intentionally drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties. Voters approved the Fair Districts constitutional amendments in 2010 by more than 63 percent, over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

As the trial ended Wednesday, it featured the same sense of uncertainty with which it began.

Lewis gave the parties a tight hearing schedule, ordering the parties to complete witness testimony Wednesday. But when the case went long, he ordered the lawyers to submit their closing arguments, as well as their proposals for how he should resolve the case, by the end of next week.

The case began with a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling preventing the plaintiffs from entering the testimony of GOP political operative Pat Bainter. He fought to keep emails, maps and planning documents related to redistricting from being entered at trial saying they infringe on his First Amendment rights.

A week into the trial, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the DCA ruling and said that Bainter's documents could be admitted if relevant — but only behind closed doors.

For the first time in state history, sitting legislators were called to testify after the Florida Supreme Court ruled they could not claim legislative privilege in a redistricting case.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, each acknowledged they met out of the public eye to reach agreement on a final congressional map.

Also testifying was former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, whose deputy chief of staff Kirk Pepper admitted to giving proposed House maps to GOP political consultant Marc Reichelderfer because he was "trying to do something nice, for a friend of mine."

The depositions of the vice chairman of the House Redistricting Committee and the co-chairs of the congressional redistricting committee — former state Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, and state Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey — were also entered into evidence.

The trial showed how legislators avoid creating a paper trail under the state's public records law, which exempts them from disclosing any records relating to draft legislation. Gaetz, Weatherford and the other legislators said that after the redistricting maps were passed they destroyed related emails as part of their routine records housekeeping, even though they expected a lawsuit in the redistricting trial.

But the biggest surprise came when former Florida State University College Republican Jose Posada emerged as a witness for the plaintiffs in mid trial. The 24-year-old testified that his identity was falsely used to submit a redistricting map that, plaintiffs say, was used as the foundation for as many as seven districts in the final map.

The plaintiffs' lawyers noted that Gaetz named Posada as an example of a member of the public whose suggestion was used as the basis of drawing Districts 4 and 5 in the final map.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]erald.com.

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