It was 101 degrees in the shade Monday afternoon when Florida legislators gaveled open a two-week special session to redraw — for the third time — the state’s congressional districts and, within minutes, it became apparent that hardly anyone wanted to be there.
The governor and his family had jetted off to Paris for a vacation. The Florida Supreme Court, which ordered lawmakers to redraw the map that forced the special session, was on its summer break. At least 10 of the state’s 40 senators and 17 of the 120 House members received permission to skip out, or come late, for the session.
House and Senate leaders announced that they disagreed with the court ruling that said the Republican-led redistricting process was “tainted” by illegal partisan intent but vowed to fix it as part of the “remedial” process laid out by the court.
“We continue to believe that we drew a constitutional map in 2012 and again in 2014,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, addressing the chamber in a 20-minute opening session. “Unfortunately, we are here today because the Supreme Court disagreed and ordered that eight districts be redrawn.”
Echoing the theme of a lawsuit filed last week in federal court by two Pensacola Republican Party officials, several lawmakers used their opening day speeches to accuse the court of violating the legislature’s First Amendment rights by requiring it to justify its map-drawing decisions in an open and transparent way.
“We are under direction by a court that continues, over and over again, to exceed their constitutional authority,” said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, after the House adjourned. “When one branch goes deep into other areas, the people lose. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, accused the court of inhibiting free speech when it ordered that all map-making decisions be made in the open. Lee said that violated his right to speak freely with colleagues, the House and even constituents about the maps.
“Who are they?” Lee asked of the court. “This has gotten out of hand. To me this is just a big overreach by the court.”
Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, explained that unlike other cases in which a law is struck down as unconstitutional, the redistricting case no longer allows the legislature the benefit of a presumption that what it did was right.
“In this case, it is incumbent upon us to show the court why what we produced is in fact compliant with the Constitution,’’ he said. “We have to prove up our map and justify the decisions in the districts that are drawn.”
The court said that because political operatives infiltrated the legislature’s redistricting process in violation of the Fair District amendments approved by voters in 2010, the legislature now had to prove that it was not intentionally favoring or disfavoring incumbents or political parties.
Senate President Andy Gardiner then ordered that any discussions between any senator and any staff member must be recorded.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, suggested that requirement could have a “chilling effect” on discussions between senators and staff members and compared it to a “police station” where police record conversations with suspects. Negron said that if the Florida Supreme Court can make decisions in private and talk with its clerks in private, the legislature should have the same latitude.
Negron asked the Senate reconsider the requirement, but Galvano said the Senate would heed the court’s advice “and close this chapter.”
The House and Senate have essentially sequestered their professional staff from legislators and ordered them to draw a “base map” based on the Supreme Court’s findings.
“I think we have gone above and beyond and met the court’s expectations,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, the House Redistricting Committee chairman.
Among the recommendations are creating separate districts for Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, keeping the city of Homestead whole, and improving the compactness of a serpentine minority district that meanders from Jacksonville to Orlando.
The new map also divides Tallahassee’s Leon County in half, connects southern Hillsborough to a Sarasota-centered district and slices Sarasota County north and south.
Galvano said senators who propose alternative maps must remap the entire state and all 27 congressional districts — “not piecemeal,” he said.
After the Senate adjourned, Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemons of Lake Worth and Darren Soto of Orlando said the Republicans who alleged their constitutional rights were violated had missed the point.
The Fair Districts provisions of the constitution prevent legislators from intentionally protecting incumbents and parties, and the court ruled that the evidence showed that legislators violated the Constitution by intentionally protecting incumbents, they said. The reason they must produce recordings and evidence of all conversations relating to the map drawing is to prove there is no illegal intent.
“There’s no privacy right in the First Amendment,” Clemons said. “They have a right to say whatever they want to say — they just can’t say it in private.”
Legislators will be briefed on the map at a joint meeting between the House and Senate redistricting committees Tuesday.
Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee bureau chief. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas