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  1. Opinion

Dockery: Court should redraw congressional districts

They came, they wrangled and they adjourned — without congressional maps.

The Florida Supreme Court gave the Florida Legislature the opportunity to try for the third time to draw congressional districts in a manner consistent with the Fair District Amendments in the state Constitution. The court also gave them fairly specific direction on the eight districts they needed to redraw and a time frame to do it.

This should have been an easy task. Republicans control the House and Senate with large majorities. The Legislature had ample time — a 12-day special session — to make the adjustments. With only one task to accomplish, a single party controlling the process and plenty of staff and expert legal counsel, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that it would be done quickly and without fireworks.

But soon it became clear that lingering bad blood and hurt feelings from the Medicaid expansion battle and a special budget session were preventing a quick resolution.

The governor, also a Republican, could have weighed in and shown leadership but he was missing in action — and not on particularly good terms with the Legislature, having taken sides in the Medicaid battle and vetoing legislative priorities.

During the special session on congressional redistricting the House and Senate started with a base map drafted entirely by legislative staffers.

The House backed the base map with a few modifications while the Senate made changes in Central Florida.

The House argued the Senate's map wouldn't pass judicial review. House members also believed the Senate plan created an attractive seat for the Hillsborough senator pushing the change. The House refused to budge and senators stormed out of the conference committee. The House then refused the Senate's request to extend the session to work out differences and adjourned.

The session ended in failure. There's plenty of blame to go around

Now it appears it will fall to the Florida Supreme Court to draw the maps. Ironic since legislators — in both the House and Senate — spent the first few days of the session lambasting the court for what they perceived as "judicial overreach."

Now the two legislative chambers, employing their own lawyers, can't even agree on what the courts should do — at further cost to taxpayers. The House wants the Florida Supreme Court to give the trial court the authority to review and choose the congressional map. The Senate wants the court to give senators more time to come to an agreement with the House. It's hard to see how another special session and fourth attempt could be fruitful.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis quickly called a hearing and said he needed guidance from the Florida Supreme Court.

It's time for the high court to decide.

The Florida Supreme Court should appoint a three-member expert panel to review maps and allow the House, Senate, League of Women Voters and other groups that express an interest to submit maps to the panel by Sept. 25. The panel should make recommendations to the court, whose justices should choose a map of the 27 congressional districts by Oct. 17.

While the Fair District Amendments have had an impact on the districts and on the process for drawing them, it has taken a plaintiff — the League of Women Voters — to force the courts to enforce them. It has taken time — four years and counting. It has been expensive, with voting rights groups raising money to challenge the poorly drawn maps and taxpayers footing the bills for the Florida Legislature, which poorly drew them.

We still have another special session scheduled for Oct. 19. Then the Legislature will redraw the state Senate districts, a process that should prove even tougher than the congressional maps. House and Senate members have an interest in how they are drawn for their present and future political races. Couple that with the fact that the Supreme Court has not provided direction to remedy the Senate districts. Recent events do not bode well for a successful outcome.

It's abundantly clear the Florida Legislature can't or won't comply, having failed Florida voters too many times.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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