TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A trial over whether the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature broke the law when drawing new political maps started on Monday and is expected to last up to 11 days and will include testimony from some of Florida's highest ranking politicians, including the leaders of both the House and Senate.
The central question of the trial is whether or not GOP leaders ignored a 2010 constitutional amendment that forced legislators for the first time to draw up congressional districts that do not protect incumbents or members of a political party. The new districts were adopted by the Legislature more than two years ago.
The coalition of groups behind the lawsuit, including the League of Women Voters, contends that a "shadow" process was used to make sure that Republicans were protected. Legislative leaders have insisted the allegations are false and that legislators followed the law even though GOP legislators opposed passage of the "Fair Districts" amendment.
Attorneys for the groups suing the Legislature got the trial quickly rolling by bringing a Republican consultant and friend of former House Speaker Dean Cannon to the stand.
Evidence obtained from Marc Reichelderfer's computer show that he got copies of proposed maps sometimes days and weeks before they were released to the public. Reichelderfer exchanged information about these proposed maps with other Republican consultants and he talked about one of the maps with U.S. Rep. Dan Webster.
Reichelderfer got some of the maps from a top aide to Cannon, but said he could not recall how he got other copies. He repeatedly insisted that he did not tell Cannon or legislative staff whether changes to the districts would help or hurt Republicans.
"I did not tell them how to draw the maps," Reichelderfer said.
The lawsuit says several districts, including the one held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown in Jacksonville, were drawn in a way to help Republicans because legislators packed Brown's district with black voters who are usually registered as Democrats. Brown's district winds all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando and was described as "serpentine" by one of the coalition lawyers.
Legislative attorneys have countered that the loss of several Republicans during the 2012 elections including U.S. Rep. Allen West is proof that legislators did not draw districts just to help GOP politicians.
If the court finds the current district unconstitutional it could force legislators to redraw congressional districts. Currently there are 16 Republicans and 10 Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation although Republican Curt Clawson is expected to win election next month to a vacant southwest Florida seat.
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