Florida’s redistricting dilemma got more complicated Friday as members of the state’s congressional delegation asked for statewide hearings and a top state senator warned that the court ruling that invalidated the congressional map had led to legislative “paralysis.”
In a letter to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, a bipartisan group of congressional members said it would be “a travesty” for legislators to revise the congressional maps without first conducting statewide hearings to get input from the public.
“The opportunity to be heard is particularly important for African-American and Latino communities whose representation and voting power will be impacted by redistricting,” wrote Democratic U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, Alan Grayson, Frederica Wilson, Kathy Castor, Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Republican U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho, Jeff Miller, John Mica, Mario Diaz Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Ander Crenshaw, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Daniel Webster.
Each member of Congress who signed the letter is in a district that will be affected by the redrawn maps.
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But the idea was quickly rejected by Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who cited the court’s tight timeline. The Florida Supreme Court set an Oct. 17 deadline for the Legislature to redo the map and obtain a trial court ruling on it. This week, Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds shortened the schedule even more, ordering the Legislature to finish its map and trial by Sept. 25 in order to meet the high court’s deadline.
“The court did not contemplate statewide public hearings when they set the time frame,” Crisafulli said in a statement. “We will, however, have opportunities for public comment and public testimony.”
In a precedent-setting ruling last week, the court invalidated the congressional map and ordered lawmakers to revise 8 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. It ruled that the lawmakers violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution because it drew maps with the “intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbent lawmakers.”
The court cited testimony and evidence at trial that, despite claims that the process was the most “transparent” on record, showed it allowed political operatives to orchestrate testimony at public hearings and file maps written by political consultants to benefit Republican incumbents.
Crisafulli hinted, however, that the request for the hearings could be viewed by the court as an attempt by the congressional members to influence the Legislature and make the map vulnerable to claims that it favored incumbents, in violation of the Fair Districts provisions.
“I have asked all of our staff and members to have no contact with congressional members, staff, or consultants during the congressional reapportionment process,” he said. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was not available for comment.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the House and Senate told a trial court judge Friday that early next week the Legislature will announce its special session, likely to be conducted in August.
As part of the agenda, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, asked that legislative leaders agree on rules that govern their behavior for redistricting now and into the future. He suggested, for example, that lawmakers keep a log of their redistricting conversations and require that anyone who testifies before committees be placed under oath.
“It is not just what we do during redistricting, but how and why we do it that matters,” he wrote in a letter to Crisafulli, who deemed Rodriguez’s request a “political letter” and would not comment.
Crisafulli and Gardiner have been silent on their intentions for calling a special session but Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, told the Herald/Times that the court has led to “a bit of paralysis” on the part of lawmakers and hopes that the federal courts will ultimately step in.
“No one will even talk about our legal opinions for fear it will be construed as intent to draw a map,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this where the process is so shut down and locked down.’’
Legal scholars have said that one way to engage the federal courts would be if lawmakers pass a map and someone challenges it as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“Free speech is a funky, fragile thing,” Lee said. “This system is messed up and, absent some federal court stepping in, I don’t see any justice coming out of this.”
He said that because the court ruled that legislators’ reapportionment decisions are not subject to the traditional privilege in court, there was now enormous tension between the First Amendment rights of legislators, staff and consultants to speak up about redistricting.
Reynolds acknowledged that tension during a hearing Friday on a redistricting lawsuit challenging the state Senate map, which was brought by the same plaintiffs in the congressional case, a group of Democrat-leaning groups led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.
“Florida’s amendment can’t overrule the First Amendment,” he said.
Lawyers for a group of political operatives argued that they should not be compelled to turn over documents or testify in depositions about their political attempts to influence the redistricting process because that violates their First Amendment right to free association.
Kent Saffreit, a lawyer for some of the operatives, said the “whole basis for deposing” his clients “is because the Legislature destroyed all their documents” and the emails and draft maps drawn by the operatives were the only things left.
Reynolds acknowledged that because many of the questions the plaintiffs have for the operatives will be challenged in the Senate case, the parties had until Aug. 4 to complete all depositions to give the court time to address all challenges.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas on Twitter.