TALLAHASSEE — After spending nearly three years and millions of dollars defending its redistricting maps, the Florida Senate gave up the fight Tuesday as it conceded for the first time that the courts were going to find it violated the state Constitution.
Lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have argued the Republican-controlled Senate violated the so-called Fair Districts provision of the state Constitution that prohibits drawing lines to favor a political party or any incumbents.
As a result of Tuesday's settlement, the Legislature will now be called into its third special session of the year to redraw at least 28 of its 40 districts statewide.
That special session is scheduled to run from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, two months after the Legislature holds a special session in August to fix congressional districts that the Florida Supreme Court ruled earlier this month had violated the state Constitution.
"This is remarkable," said David King, an attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. "The Florida Senate has admitted that they drew an unconstitutional map and as a consequence of that, they now have agreed to fix the problem."
But state Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, disputed that interpretation. He said the Senate did not concede it violated the law, only that it was apparent that the courts were going to find it had, based on the congressional district ruling handed down earlier in the month.
Beyond altering some lines on a map, the redrawing could have a wide-ranging impact on who will lead the Florida Senate and the state's overall political agenda. If Republicans retain control of the Senate in 2016, the redrawn districts could make politically safe districts for many incumbents more competitive. That in turn could shake up an already tight contest between state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to determine who will lead the chamber.
If districts are redrawn as anti-gerrymandering groups have demanded, the new districts will not be based on keeping incumbents in power. That could result in more moderate districts, rather than ones in which party primaries essentially decide the winners. It also means more moderate candidates that have to appeal to both parties would have a greater likelihood of being elected to the Senate for the final two years of Gov. Rick Scott's tenure in office.
Already the Republican-dominated Legislature has been paralyzed at times as the often more conservative House has fought with a more moderate Florida Senate over issues like Medicaid expansion and state spending. In April, the Legislature ended its annual spring session without passing a budget after a dispute over hospital funding programs and Medicaid overran the agenda. That forced the House and Senate to hold a three-week special session in June to finish their work.
While the Senate and congressional lines are being redone, the 120 districts drawn by the Florida House in 2012 remain intact and are unlikely to change. Democrats hold just 39 of the 120 seats in the House. Even if the Senate sees new faces and more moderates elected, the House will remain mostly unchanged because those maps are not involved in any ongoing litigation.
In court documents filed on Tuesday, the House and Senate specifically absolve the House of any blame for the Senate maps. In a joint statement sent to the media by Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, the chambers declare the House "had no knowledge of any constitutional infirmities relating to the Senate Plan." Still, while the Senate worked out the deal with the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the House had to agree not to object to the deal.
Similar to the procedures the Senate set up over the congressional redistricting for August, lawmakers said Tuesday that professional staff and legal counsel will be charged with developing new maps without members participating or political influence. Then when the maps are presented, they will be given to everyone simultaneously and be amended only in public view.
Those procedures are aimed at preventing a repeat of the congressional redistricting problems identified by the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month. In its landmark ruling, the court invalidated the state's congressional map detailing how political operatives "infiltrated" the process, used fake email accounts to submit the maps as nonpartisan private citizens and created districts that found their way into the final maps approved by lawmakers.
Because it is the third time that Republicans in the Senate have had to draw the lines to comply with the 2012 voter approved amendment aimed at stopping overt gerrymandering, King said he is "pretty skeptical" that they will get it right.
Nevertheless, there is insurance in that the agreement reached Tuesday allows the court to retain jurisdiction and serve in an oversight capacity as the new maps are drawn.
The settlement also allows the court to decide whether taxpayers will be responsible for paying for the attorneys fees for the plaintiffs. The Legislature has already spent more than $8.1 million in defending the maps. How much additional attorney fees would be has not been decided yet.
"The Legislature defended the indefensible," King said. "They spent millions of dollars in defense and it comes to naught today."
A major issue left undecided in Tuesday's court ruling is how many state senators could face re-election in 2016.
If the Senate alters all of the 40 Senate districts in at least a minor way, it could force every district up for re-election in 2016, even though 20 seats are not supposed to be up until 2018. Galvano said he's not convinced all 40 seats will have to go up for re-election. He said there is nothing in Tuesday's court stipulation that will mandate that.
The Senate's concessions on Tuesday were the product of negotiations between the Senate and lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, who were planning for a Sept. 25 trial challenging the maps as unconstitutional gerrymandering.
The Senate's decision to hold the special session negates the need for the trial.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.