Legal maneuvers continue in redistricting cases

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
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Congresswoman Corrine Brown's district was at the center of a long-running legal battle over redistricting. It's been redrawn, but the new map won't take effect until 2016.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - As a Leon County judge finalized the dates for a hearing on a third draft of Florida's congressional districts, a key lawmaker Monday refused to rule out the possibility of continuing the legal fight over the map, this time in federal court.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the Legislature and critics of the 2012 redistricting process declined to discuss whether settlement talks were underway in a separate case dealing with a state Senate map that opponents also say was tainted by political considerations.

The legal maneuvering came in the wake of a Florida Supreme Court decision July 9 that struck down eight of Florida's 27 congressional districts and called for wide-ranging changes to some of them. One of the most dramatic shifts is likely to be switching the district of Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown from a north-south configuration that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando to an east-west arrangement that runs from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

Brown has suggested that an east-west district could violate the federal Voting Rights Act because it would diminish the opportunity for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice, something fiercely denied by opponents of the current map.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the Legislature's decision to move forward with an August special session to redraw the congressional map would not preclude someone challenging the Florida court's decision.

"Opportunities for appeal have not been exhausted," Galvano, who will steer the redistricting process, told reporters. "And whether that comes from the body itself or comes from a particular congressperson, that's open. What we have decided is, we're not going to waste time or seek a stay or try to stop the process in the meantime while some of these issues are being looked at."

While Galvano would not commit to an east-west set-up for Brown's district, he did concede that the Legislature would likely go along despite its conclusion last year --- in a second attempt to draw the map --- that the design would not be as compliant with the state's anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" constitutional amendment.

"Having said that, the court has spoken and we're going to look very carefully at what recommendations were made, and so there is a high likelihood that it will end up being east-west," Galvano said.

He made his comments after a brief hearing in front of Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who will consider arguments after the special session about whether the Legislature's new draft of congressional districts complies with the Supreme Court's order. Lewis and lawyers in the case agreed to move the starting date of the new hearing from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24.

After the hearing, attorneys for the Legislature and the opponents of the maps, led by the League of Women Voters of Florida, met behind closed doors. Galvano briefly joined the group, telling reporters only that it was on pending litigation challenging the state Senate districts.

But the lawmaker said afterward he wouldn't comment on the substance of the discussions, and David King --- an attorney for those fighting the maps --- was also tight-lipped.

"I really can't comment on what we were talking about in there just now," King said.

Asked more broadly whether settlement discussions were going on, King said: "I really can't say. I'm sorry. But we'll see what happens soon."

A spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said his office had no comment on whether the Senate districts might also get a fresh look during the upcoming special session. A trial on that map is expected to start Sept. 25.

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