Florida legislators announced Monday they will convene a 12-day special session starting August 10 to comply with a court order to revise the state’s congressional districts and will take some extraordinary measures to make sure staffers draw an initial base map without consulting anyone but lawyers.
The unusual process is a response to the unprecedented situation in which legislators find themselves after the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to invalidate the state’s congressional map because it was “tainted with unconstitutional intent to favor the Republicans and incumbents.”
Now, after spending $8.1 million defending their flawed map in court, the burden of proof shifts to lawmakers to prove that they are following the law. To do that, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner have ordered legislators to compile all documents and communications related to drawing the new congressional districts, forward them daily to a specially-created email account, and prohibited those who are drafting the new map from talking about it.
For example, the House and Senate redistricting staff is ordered to have “no interactions with any member of the Legislature, a member’s staff or aide, political consultants or others concerning their work on the base map prior to its public release,” the officers wrote in a three-page memo to legislators Monday.
What’s more, staff is ordered not to have any interactions “with any member of Congress” or their staff and consultants, and no contact with any political party. If any legislators attempt to talk to staff about drawing a map that favors a party or incumbent, staff is ordered to ignore the communication and report the lawmakers.
“While every citizen of Florida has a guaranteed constitutional right to petition their government, we encourage members to be circumspect and to avoid all communications that reflect or might be construed to reflect an intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,’’ Crisafulli and Gardiner wrote in the memo.
They set the special session for Aug. 10-21 and assigned Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, to chair the House redistricting committee and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to chair the Senate panel.
The court ruled that Republican operatives had conducted a “shadow redistricting process” and infiltrated the map-drawing when lawmakers first drew the congressional boundaries in 2012. The court then gave legislators until Oct. 17 to revise eight of the state’s 27 districts, including those held by Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz Balart.
Some of the guidelines are similar to those offered by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who asked lawmakers to write new rules to apply to their redistricting deliberations so that they would create enough of a record of their decision-making process to justify their maps in court.
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction if we’re trying to restore some confidence in the process,” he said. “But I think how it’s implemented will really tell us if there really can be a single process and a public process, or a shadow process. Any system can be subverted. This is certainly good if we comply with this.”
Under the guidelines set by Crisafulli and Gardiner, the House and Senate redistricting staff will “work collaboratively with legal counsel to develop a base map that complies with the Florida Supreme Court’s recent ruling.”
Both chambers are also banning their lawyers from discussions with legislators, members of Congress members, political operatives and party officials, and the House is waiving its attorney-client privilege to do so, spokesmen said..
If any legislators “suggests to staff that a plan be changed with the intent to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party” staff is told to “disregard the suggestion entirely and report in writing the conversation directly to the Speaker or the President, respectively.”
In addition, the officers ordered that before the session convenes on Aug. 10, the map will be “provided simultaneously to all members and the public,”’ the officers wrote. The base map will be unveiled before session, and explained by staff in a public meeting. After that, legislators will have “a full opportunity to review, discuss, debate and offer amendments to the base map,” the officers said.
Left out of the special session will be any discussion of the Senate map, which is also being challenged in district court in Leon County. Legislators must defend that map and, if it is rejected, will likely face another special session in the future.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.