Judge gets 7 Florida Senate district maps to consider

Published Nov. 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds was handed seven options for drawing the Senate district maps late Wednesday, giving him the opportunity to be the "seamstress" he suggested might be needed to stitch together proposals in time for the 2016 elections.

Six of the proposed maps come from challengers to the lawsuit, a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters and voting groups led by the League of Women Voters, who filed a lawsuit alleging the Legislature violated the Fair Districts provisions of the state constitution when drawing the existing Senate boundaries in 2012. The Legislature agreed to settle the lawsuit, and when it couldn't agree to a plan during a three-week special session, the job shifted to the court.

The House refrained from offering a map, relying on what it told the court last week — that it would defer to the Senate.

Senate leaders, upon the advice of attorneys, decided to create a new configuration, pulling together pieces of two different maps drawn by staff, including the bulk of one that was adopted by the full Senate.

Reynolds now has the job of trying to sort through the options during a five-day trial Dec. 14-18. He said in an emergency hearing last week that he might consider putting together pieces of different maps like "a good seamstress."

According to a political performance analysis of the coalition maps by Matt Isbell of MCI maps, 20 of the districts gave Republican Mitt Romney a majority in 2012 election, and 20 of them gave Democrat Barack Obama a majority.

Although the numbers appear to create parity for each party, the fundraising and logistical advantage is expected to go to Republicans in many districts where Democrats have only a narrow majority.

Nevertheless, if the court were to choose one of the plaintiffs' maps, the outcome could reset the political landscape in some ways for the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Lawmakers, however, will argue that the judge should pick the Senate map because it was drawn be Senate staff whose conversations were recorded. The coalition maps were drawn by a consultant for Strategic Telemetry, an organization lawyers for the House and Senate say is biased toward Democrats.

"The reality is … nobody's asking the plaintiffs how they're building their maps," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando on Thursday. "Nobody's asking who they are talking to. Are they looking at performance?"

Gardiner said he chose to submit to the court a single Senate map, with pieces of two "base maps" that were drawn by staff, "because you have a record — it's all recorded, at least on the Senate side — and it's a Senate product."

Gardiner rejected the configuration for Miami-Dade County adopted by the Senate on a 22-18 vote, and drawn by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, and instead chose a different version that was drawn by the staff.

Under the plan, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is drawn into the same district as Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, likely forcing her to move from her West Kendall home. Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, is put into the same district as Diaz de la Portilla. And the map stretches the African-American majority seat held by Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Lakes, to Broward, including the cities of Cooper City, Davie and Southwest Ranches.

In Palm Beach County, Democratic Sens. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, and Joe Abruzzo of Boynton Beach are drawn into the same district. In all other parts of the state, the map carefully avoids pitting incumbent senators against each other.

But not everyone is pleased with the map the Senate submitted.

"I think it's questionable how they can submit a map on behalf of the Senate that wasn't voted on by the Senate," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. He said he wasn't told what map Gardiner and Senate lawyers had chosen to submit.

"It's pretty bold to submit a map that was never put before this body and say it is the map of this body," said Braynon, who is scheduled to be Senate Democratic Leader next year. "They are setting themselves up for the plaintiffs' map to be accepted."

Diaz de la Portilla said he was also disappointed. "The Senate should have submitted (map) 9124 to the court, which is the map that the full Senate approved," he said.

The challengers' maps are a modification of what they presented to the Senate during the special redistricting session that ended two weeks ago, but the variations offer the judge a menu of options to two distinct areas: Miami-Dade County and Tampa Bay.

Three of the coalition maps create a fourth Hispanic-majority district in Miami-Dade while three options create only three Hispanic-majority seats. Three of the maps cross Tampa Bay to create a black-majority seat while three do not.

Twenty-six of the districts are identical in every map, and only 14 have varying degrees of party performance. One district, 17 in Tampa, gave neither party a majority in the 2012 presidential race, but it leans Democratic.

Meanwhile, depositions are being scheduled of potential witnesses and three senators — Senate Reapportionment Committee chair Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, Gardiner and Latvala — have been subpoenaed for questioning

Some senators are considering whether to schedule a quick special session when they convene for committee meetings the week of Nov. 30 to decide whether to vote on the Senate submission.

Gardiner said Wednesday he hasn't "thought that far" but appears open to considering it.

"The members, probably over the holidays have to decide, what do we do?" he said. "Do you have time to maybe reevaluate or do we just go forward with that and see what the judge does?"

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.