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Special Session of the Legislature Begins Wednesday to Fix Senate’s Gerrymandering

| March 11, 2012

Not much improvement with computer modeling.

Shortly after Florida’s 2012 regular legislative session ended, lawmakers were already considering the contours of the special redistricting session that will begin Wednesday.

And they already have some ideas about the scope of the changes to the Senate plan, the only one struck down by the Florida Supreme Court, and the role of the House in recasting the lines to the court’s liking. Both will be limited.

Shortly after the court announced a 5-2 ruling Friday that the Senate clearly did not comply with the anti-gerrymanding Fair Districts amendments approved by voters (see below), Senate leaders made it clear that they would hold the House to a “gentlemen’s agreement” that each chamber got to draw its own lines.

The court included proposed Senate District 6, which covers half of Flagler County, among those it rejected, ruling: “District 6 is not compact visually, and the mathematical measures of compactness confirm this. District 6 received a Reock score of 0.12 (closer to 1 is better), and an Area/Convex Hull score of 0.43 (closer to 1 is better). Although part of District 6‘s western border follows the St. Johns River, it is evident that its non-compactness is not a result of attempting to utilize an existing political or geographical boundary. Neighboring District 9 is also visually not compact […].”

In the earliest hours of Saturday morning, following a brief post-midnight celebration of the end of the session, House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, suggested that he was content to play second fiddle.

“I think the House is always going to show deference to the Senate when it comes to the Senate maps,” Weatherford said. “But at the same time, we certainly have opinions. We’re going to work with them and assist them in hopefully drawing a very legally compliant map.”

As for the map itself — Senate leaders cautioned against expecting sweeping changes to the map. They instead cast the Supreme Court decision as an endorsement of the overwhelming majority of districts — only eight of the 40 districts and the numbering system for seats were specifically thrown out — and said that only tweaks were needed.

“Given the fact that 80 percent of our seats were ratified, I’m sure the last 20 percent will come in line with their recommendations,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

And while any change to the unconstitutional districts will inevitably ripple across other parts of the map, and the court tossed districts in practically every major region of the state, Senate leaders said the damage was limited.

“We’re not starting with a clean sheet of paper, as some of our critics wanted us to,” said Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “We’re starting I think with a roadmap that will help us get where we need to go.”

Those steps are in some cases clearly spelled out: For example, the court tossed the districts of Gaetz and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, because it said lawmakers could not justify dividing the Panhandle into two districts that ran east-to-west, dividing a number of counties, instead of a north-south alignment.

But other cases are more ambiguous. The court encouraged the Legislature to consider whether it could unite Lakeland into one district under the map, but did not order lawmakers to change the plan’s decision to split the city into two.

There isn’t much time to fix the problems — lawmakers will have two weeks once the session starts — and the next map will be the Legislature’s last shot at drawing Senate lines. Under the constitution, a new set of lines would be crafted by the court if the second draft fails, though the court stressed Friday that it didn’t want to take that step.

“As the next phase of this apportionment process begins, we are confident the Legislature will apply these standards in a manner consistent with the interpretation we have heretofore provided, keeping as its goal a Senate plan that would pass constitutional muster,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority. “The Court views its constitutional obligation of drawing a plan to be the course of last resort.”

Haridopolos said he’s confident the chamber can meet the deadline, but he was more hesitant on predicting whether the maps would be approved. Lawmakers lost a 2010 battle at the Supreme Court over a separate redistricting amendment that Haridopolos spearheaded, and have suffered other legal setbacks to their agenda in recent months.

“I can never predict the Supreme Court,” he said wryly, while noting he called Friday’s decision. “That’s official.”

Supreme Court Tosses Senate Redistricting Plan (March 9)

The Florida Supreme Court struck down a legislative plan to redraw the boundaries for the state Senate in a landmark ruling Friday, roiling the final day of the 2012 session and ensuring that lawmakers would return to the Capitol at least once.

The 5-2 ruling by the court, which also upheld a new House map, was closely watched because it was the first time the justices had to interpret the meaning of the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards adopted by voters in a 2010 referendum.

Under the constitution, Gov. Rick Scott must call a special session. However, the governor’s legal team was scrambling to interpret a vague clause of the constitution that either requires Scott to issue the call for a special session within five days or have the Legislature return to Tallahassee within five days.

In its ruling, the majority swept aside concerns that its 30-day review did not provide enough time to consider the merits of the maps. The errors in the Senate maps were so glaring that justices did not need to gather extensive evidence and hear testimony to make the decision, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority.

“We conclude that the Senate plan is rife with objective indicators of improper intent which, when considered in isolation do not amount to improper intent, but when viewed cumulatively demonstrate a clear pattern,” Pariente wrote.

She said the Senate map included “a number of districts that are clearly less compact than other districts, with visually bizarre and unusual shapes.”

Lawyers for the state had argued that the month long review was too short for a thorough vetting of the maps and that a trial judge should be allowed to consider any specific claims.

In a concurring opinion, Justice James Perry brushed those claims aside.

“As recognized by the majority, the citizens of Florida have entrusted us to interpret and apply these constitutional standards,” Perry wrote. “We cannot simply be a rubber stamp for the Legislature’s interpretation of the constitution.”

But Chief Justice Charles Canady said that put the court in unfamiliar territory and undermined the judiciary’s tradition of deference to the Legislature.

“Based on nothing more than suspicion and surmise, the majority concludes that certain district lines were drawn with improper intent — when there is an evident, rational, permissible basis for the drawing of those lines,” Canady wrote.

The court specifically threw out eight of the 40 Senate districts. The majority also ordered senators to renumber districts and consider whether Lakeland could be united in one district; the proposed plan had split the city in two.

Voting-rights organizations that were active in the challenge hailed the decision.

“From this day forward our elected officials are on notice that they cannot ignore the Constitution and abuse the public trust by drawing districts to favor themselves,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, part of a coalition of voting groups that opposed the maps.

Republicans in the House also found reason to enjoy the decision.

“We followed the law and respected the will of the voters, and today the House Democrats’ claims and the attacks of outside partisan groups about the House map have been completely and utterly discredited by the Supreme Court of Florida,” said House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.

Senate Democrats said, essentially, that they told the GOP what would happen — even though a number of Democrats supported the plan.

“The Supreme Court saw the same troubling issues of discrimination and favoritism as the Senate Democrats who voted against these maps, and which go against every fiber of the Constitution’s new anti-gerrymandering amendments overwhelmingly passed by the majority of Florida’s voters,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Republican leaders tried to frame the results as positively as possible.

“Four out of five districts were approved. … They had some specific areas they’d like us to look at, and we’re happy to do so and work with the courts,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

But the eight districts in question are spread throughout the state, raising questions about whether anything less than a far-reaching overhaul would make the map constitutional.

However extensive the review, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, made it clear he expected the House to hold to an earlier “gentlemen’s agreement” that each chamber be allowed to draw its own maps.

“I’m grateful that the Governor, President and Speaker are working together to schedule an extraordinary session so the Senate can draw districts in accordance with the parameters set by the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Gaetz said in a statement.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

Download Florida Supreme Court Redistricting Decision (March 2012)

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