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Florida House takes redistricting standoff to court

Proposed congressional map showing northeast Florida districts in a mapproposedby the Florida House redistricting committee.
Proposed congressional map showing northeast Florida districts in a mapproposedby the Florida House redistricting committee.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The House headed to court Monday as the next step in a heated battle with the Senate over how to redraw Florida's 27 congressional districts.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, announced late Monday that House lawyers asked the Florida Supreme Court to allow a Leon County judge to consider redistricting plans from the House, Senate and potentially other parties in a lawsuit that led to a ruling last month striking down eight of the state's congressional districts.

A special session aimed at redrawing the congressional lines collapsed Friday after the House and Senate failed to agree on whether to amend a "base map," drawn by legislative aides to satisfy a Supreme Court opinion that the current districts violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by voters in 2010. Senators wanted to make changes to the base map to consolidate eastern Hillsborough County into one congressional district and avoid splitting up Sarasota County, but the House balked.

The decision to submit the House proposal to the courts, though, could escalate the confrontation between the two chambers. Until now, the House and Senate have generally presented a united front in the face of the challenge to the districts.

"I want to reiterate that this decision is not made because of personality or politics. ... While it gives me great pause to ask the court to decide this matter, I can assure you that the difference of opinion between the two chambers is both significant and legitimate," Crisafulli wrote in a memo to House members.

In its request to the Supreme Court, the House would also reserve the right of the Legislature to redraw the congressional lines at any time.

"Judicial proceedings to establish a redistricting plan should be conducted without prejudice to the inherent authority of the Legislature at any time during or after those proceedings to reconvene and enact valid redistricting legislation, and any plan adopted by the court should expressly be an interim or provisional plan that will remain in place only until superseded by subsequent legislation," said the House's Monday filing.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on how to proceed with the case now that the Legislature was unable to approve a map.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement issued by his office that the Senate still hoped the Legislature could work out its differences on the congressional plan.

"The Senate offered two resolutions to extend the special session and made numerous attempts to enter into a formal conference process to resolve differences between the House and Senate maps," said Gardiner, R-Orlando. "During tomorrow's hearing, the Senate attorneys will convey to the court the Senate's continued willingness to compromise and work with the House to fulfill our responsibility to draw a constitutionally compliant congressional map for Florida."

Next redistricting challenge: Florida Senate boundaries

When state lawmakers left town last week after an unsuccessful effort to redraw congressional districts, they did so knowing that in less than two months, they would be back to do the same thing with a map that hits closer to home.

 And no one expects things to get any easier when lawmakers return in October to redraw state Senate lines. Those lines were set aside after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the current congressional districts for violating the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" requirements approved by voters in 2010.

 The Senate admitted in a court settlement that its own lines run afoul of the current interpretation of the Fair Districts standards. The Senate boundaries now need to be redrawn, and those involved say the congressional session was just a preview.

 "You have 40 self-interested actors now, all with seats at the table, all with leadership ambitions, with their political careers on the line --- in terms of the number of years they might be able to stay here, whether they would have to face opposition from another sitting member of the Senate, whether their district would be strengthened or weakened relative to their own political popularity back home --- I mean, it's going to be infinitely more difficult," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

 For one thing, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano noted recently, there is no roadmap like the Florida Supreme Court decision that guided the congressional redistricting process. The Senate case involves a court settlement with voting-rights organizations that doesn't list which of the 28 districts challenged by those groups must be changed.

 "The challenge will be that we have not agreed to certain districts, certain incumbents or even a party with regard to the Senate map," said Galvano, R-Bradenton.

 Even the numbers might be difficult.

 That is because half of the Senate is up for re-election every two years, with odd-numbered districts running in presidential election years and even-numbered districts up for grabs two years later in gubernatorial cycles. Which number a candidate lands can matter quite a bit when it comes to term limits kicking in. Term limits are designed to limit lawmakers to eight years, but some senators can gain two extra years because of the staggered terms.

 If a senator's seat would not normally be up during an election when he or she would be barred from running again, that senator can keep his or her seat. For example, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, originally was elected in 2006 could not have run for re-election in 2014. But because he holds an odd-numbered seat, he will remain in office until his current term expires next year.

 The question of how redistricting will affect district numbers could be particularly acute for Sens. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Nancy Detert, R-Venice. Both were elected in 2008 but now sit in even-number districts, meaning they could serve until 2018. But if either were placed into an odd-numbered seat and forced to run in 2016, term limits could kick in. (Speculation has swirled around Detert running for a local office, in any case.)

 But almost every senator not already set to be term-limited in 2016 could gain or lose in the renumbering game. Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, would currently have to step aside as scheduled in 2020 if his district number keeps an odd number. But if it changes to an even number, he could stay until 2022.

 On the other hand, Lee could currently hold his seat until 2022 if it keeps an even number. But flip things to an odd number, and Lee would hit term limits when his district would be up for election in 2020.

 Nonetheless, Lee says the numbers have to be reassigned after the districts are drawn.

 "Nothing would please me more than to not have to run in 2016," he said. "But I don't know how else you do it."

 The Supreme Court has already ruled that numbering districts in a way that systematically allows sitting senators to stay in office longer violates the Fair Districts ban on favoring or disfavoring incumbents. The last time, the Senate solved the problem by holding a raffle for odd and even numbers during a meeting of the Reapportionment Committee to truly randomize the process.

 But other political issues could also make numbering the districts tricky in terms of avoiding gerrymandering. Numbering could also change the political dynamics in a district. If a district normally comes up during presidential years, such as 2016 and 2020, the electorate would likely be slightly more favorable to Democratic candidates. A district that would come up in 2018, though, could be more inviting for GOP hopefuls.

 "If you know which districts are going to be up in a midterm or gubernatorial election, you can inherently draw a stronger or weaker, more or less conservative district to adjust for turnout," Lee said. "Turnout numbers are vastly different in midterms versus general elections. So you can't have the numbers first and then draw the districts and be drawing districts completely in the dark. You have a variable that you've been able to tie down before you begin the map-drawing."

 Also up for debate: Will every senator have to run for re-election next year? Normally, in redistricting years, all 40 seats go back on the ballot. Lee said he thought that was the "conventional wisdom." But Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he wasn't sure.

 "I'm running regardless," said Clemens, whose seat would normally be up in 2016. "But you know, for instance, if nothing changes in the district that Sen. (Greg) Evers, for example, in the Panhandle represents, I don't know why he would be forced to run again if his district is exactly the same."

 The Senate hasn't provided any legal guidance to members on whether they would all have to run again, a spokeswoman said. A recent memo from Secretary of State Ken Detzner to local supervisors of elections said only that "any state senate district that is redrawn, regardless of district number, must be on the ballot in the next general election."

 As with the districts themselves, the settlement might not help.

 "That issue was not resolved within that context, and so it remains an open issue," Galvano said.