State Senate accuses ACLU of Florida lawyer of violating redistricting rules

Nicholas Warren, an expert on redistricting, said he submitted a proposed map as a private citizen.
Proposed redistricting map from the Florida Senate.
Proposed redistricting map from the Florida Senate. [ [Florida Senate] ]
Published Jan. 7, 2022|Updated Jan. 7, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate has accused a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida of misinformation after he appeared as a private citizen before a redistricting committee to present a map he had drawn but failed to identify his employer, which had no role in the submission.

Senate Committee chairperson Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, sent a memo to all 40 senators on Nov. 22 accusing Nicholas Warren of violating Senate rules when he presented his map at a Nov. 17 committee meeting without identifying himself as a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida.

Warren testified that he submitted the map to show the committee it was possible to avoid putting two Black communities on opposite sides of Tampa Bay into the same Senate district.

Warren suggested changing to six districts to allow legislators to keep the Black-majority Senate District 19 compact in Hillsborough County while also keeping two-thirds of Pasco County in a single Senate district. By contrast, the Senate maps divide them into three different districts, he said.

Related: Florida Senate maps of Tampa Bay district draw complaints from experts

But because Warren failed to identify his employer, Rodrigues said, he violated the rules.

“In the past, it is this kind of misrepresentation during public testimony that has directly led to the court invalidating legislatively produced maps,” Rodrigues wrote, a reference to the fact that in 2012 Florida courts invalidated the Legislature’s Senate and congressional maps after legislators allowed political operatives to secretly submit partial maps.

ACLU of Florida political director Kirk Bailey said in a statement that “while we have a general interest in the outcome of reapportionment and redistricting, we have not taken a position concerning any map presented by anyone to the Florida Legislature.”

The Senate changed its rules this year regarding map submissions and now requires anyone who attempts to address legislators in a public meeting to submit a disclosure form that indicates if they are a lobbyist or getting expenses paid. The rules also prohibit legislators from considering maps submitted by the public, unless a lawmaker explicitly requested the map in writing.

A map-drawing aficionado, ACLU employee

Citing reporting by the Miami Herald, Rodrigues said in the memo that he learned that Warren is a staff attorney of the ACLU, “an entity with an interest in redistricting, as evidenced by litigation filed in other states,” and suggested Warren attempted to deceive legislators when he testified before the Select Subcommittees on Congressional and Legislative Reapportionment.

“I am bringing Mr. Warren’s affiliation with the ACLU to your attention as you consider whether or not to incorporate his suggestions or maps in any future directives to staff,” Rodrigues wrote.

Warren, who worked for the Florida Supreme Court on redistricting litigation in the 2010 cycle and is an expert on redistricting, said in a letter to senators that his employer had no role in his submissions.

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“I am not a registered lobbyist, and I received nothing of value for my appearance, except the satisfaction of ‘appropriately and actively participat[ing] in this once-in-a-decade process in a tangible and meaningful way,’” Warren wrote on Dec. 8. “I drew my plans and gave my testimony on my own personal time, using my own personal resources.”

Bailey, the ACLU political director, noted that Warren filled out the Senate forms completely as required by the new Senate rules. He added that the rules “do not require an individual to disclose their employer. When Mr. Warren testified and submitted materials, he did so as an individual citizen, as is his right.”

Ellen Freidin, who heads Fair Districts Now, the 501(c)(3) that works to ensure that Florida’s 2022 districts are drawn in compliance with the Fair Districts Amendments of the Florida Constitution, called Rodrigues’ criticism of Warren a “false equivalency.”

“During the last redistricting cycle legislative leaders illegally conspired with political operatives to submit maps that had been prepared by Republican partisans to benefit the Republican Party,” Freidin said in a statement Thursday. “It is understandable that current legislators would want to guard against such fraudulent activity this cycle.

“However, to ban a citizen’s suggestion from consideration, simply because he is employed by a civil rights organization that had absolutely nothing to do with the suggested map, is an outrageous false equivalency and only serves to chill citizen involvement in the redistricting process even more than it has already been chilled by lack of opportunity and high hurdles for participation.”

Under the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, legislators may not diminish the voting strength of Black and Hispanic voters. The Senate staff, advised by outside attorneys, drew maps that preserve a 30-year configuration of the Black-majority district, Senate District 19, by linking part of the district in Tampa with another Black community in St. Petersburg.

In his submission, Warren’s proposal revises six Senate districts from the staff-drawn maps published “to avoid SD 19 crossing the bay.”

In doing so, he argued, the plan does a better job of keeping communities of St. Petersburg and Gulfport intact and Pinellas County whole.

“Population changes in this region mean that it is no longer necessary to connect Tampa and St. Pete to avoid diminishing minority voters’ ability to elect candidates of choice in SD 19,” Warren wrote in his submission.

Warren’s testimony at the Nov. 17 meeting prompted Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, to ask the Senate staff to draw a minority-majority Senate district in the Tampa region without linking predominantly Black communities in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Bracy said Senate staff has told him to expect that map when legislators return for their 60-day session next week.

Speaking to reporters after the committee meeting, Bracy said he had questions about the staff-drawn maps and whether they were clustering Black voters into districts unnecessarily, a tactic known as “packing.”

“What constitutes diminishment, because it seems like it can be a gray area sometimes?” he asked.

He wondered if, by increasing the number of Black voters in one district that already elects a Black candidate, that could make the adjacent district “less likely to elect a Black candidate because of how they’re configuring it?”

The question is central to the Florida Supreme Court review, which is required for the maps to become law. The court has ruled that to understand whether a group of minority voters vote cohesively enough as a bloc to elect a candidate of its choice, legislators must do what is called a functional analysis. The process involves reviewing how a district voted in general elections, then assessing the demographic makeup of the primary election, and how the minority population has voted.

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