TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A measure that would cut off one of the main avenues for challenging legislative redistricting plans was approved Wednesday by a House committee, alarming groups that fought maps struck down by the courts in recent years for political gerrymandering.
The measure (HB 953), which was substantially broadened by an amendment filed Tuesday evening, passed the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee on a 14-3 vote.
The Senate has already approved a much-narrower version of the legislation (SB 352) that would set guidelines for what happens when redistricting legal cases are unresolved in election years.
But the amendment adopted by the House committee would bar any challenges to legislative maps after a routine review by the Florida Supreme Court. It would also require opponents of congressional redistricting plans to file suit within 60 days.
Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican who sponsored the measure, told the committee it would give candidates and voters certainty by suspending litigation as elections neared.
"This just says to the courts and to those that might bring suit that they need to do so quickly in order to hopefully resolve it before the qualifying period," Ahern said. "And then, it really just provides that clarity that says after the qualifying period, everything will be suspended."
The legislation follows a legal war that raged for more than three years after lawmakers approved new legislative and congressional districts in 2012. That was the first time the once-a-decade redistricting process was governed by the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts Amendments, approved by voters in 2010.
The redistricting plan for the state's congressional delegation was struck down once in the course of the fight, with the final lines being adopted by the courts. Maps for the state Senate were voided twice: once by the Florida Supreme Court during its routine review in 2012, and another time after a settlement between the Legislature and groups who were fighting the maps.
But the Legislature had initially tried to scuttle the second challenge by arguing that the Supreme Court's routine review, which approved a redrawn Senate map in line with its 2012 decision, essentially barred any further challenges to the plan. The court disagreed, paving the way for the lawsuit that led to the settlement.
Thomas Zehnder, an attorney for the coalition of voting-rights groups that fought the Senate map in court, blasted the House amendment in a response sent Wednesday to reporters, calling it "a blatant effort to write the Fair Districts Amendments out of the Constitution and permit the sort of gerrymandering that Florida's citizens have overwhelmingly forbidden."
Zehnder said an arrangement between political consultants and Republican lawmakers, which the courts found had subverted the process in the case of the congressional maps, would have remained hidden without the more in-depth lawsuit that followed the Supreme Court decision.
A similar arrangement would have been at the heart of the Senate case had it gone to trial.
"There is no discovery in the Supreme Court, and the challengers and court were left to rely on the sanitized public record. ... If that was the end of the process, the conspiracy would not have been uncovered, and the public would be left with gerrymandered legislative districts for a decade without any avenue of recourse," Zehnder wrote.
Zehnder also said a 60-day time limit for challenges to the congressional maps, which are not subject to the automatic Supreme Court review, was too short.
Those concerns went largely unaddressed at Wednesday's meeting. The committee's Democrats were more concerned with another part of the measure that Zehnder highlighted, which says judges who draw redistricting plans after striking down the Legislature's map "must be subject to examination."
"It seems to me that this is a little bit of a poke in the eye to the courts for the 2015 actions where they decided to draw the maps," said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.
The courts in those cases essentially adopted maps proposed by Zehnder's clients, including the League of Women Voters of Florida.
But Don Rubottom, the top staff member for the House committee, told members the proposed process would simply make sure judges were subject to the Fair Districts Amendments like lawmakers.
"This intent language in the Fair Districts Amendments goes to the map," Rubottom said. "It doesn't go to legislators. It's not that legislators can't do partisan maps, but judges can. It's the map can't be partisan."
News Service of Florida