Florida Politics

Florida Senate asks court to hire expert to resolve redistricting impasse

After months of feuding, the Florida House and Senate reached a redistricting truce on Thursday and asked the court to hire an expert to draw a new map revising the state Senate boundaries instead of conducting a five-day trial next month.

“The appointment of a consultant would streamline this litigation and reduce the burden to the parties and Florida’s taxpayers by eliminating the need for costly discovery and a five-day evidentiary hearing,” wrote the Senate lawyers to Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds. “It would also eliminate any suspicion that the adopted map was laden with improper intent.”

Reynolds had asked the parties to submit a scheduling plan for the Senate redistricting trial by Thursday. But after receiving the call for an expert, Reynolds issued an order saying the trial would move ahead as scheduled, with maps submitted by next Wednesday. There was no mention of what he will do with the Senate’s request.

The lawyers for the challengers, a coalition led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida, were not happy with the Senate’s request. They have drawn three proposed Senate maps and expect to present them in court, along with the Legislature’s alternatives.

“We do not believe appointment of an expert consultant to draw the remedial Senate map in lieu of a remedial trial is appropriate, and will be pleased [to] share with the Court our views on that issue when the Court considers the Senate’s motion,” wrote David King in a letter to Reynolds on Thursday.

A December trial has been scheduled for the court to review a map proposed by the Legislature but, when lawmakers ended their three-week special session last week without agreement, the parties were expected to submit alternative maps and let the court decide.

The Florida House, which until now had been sparring with the Senate over the redistricting process, told the court it won’t object to having a “special master” draw the maps.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said in a statement that he was disappointed the Senate did not approve the map agreed to by the House and 16 members of the Senate last week, but he said the House now “intends once again to defer as much as possible to the Senate. The House has fulfilled its duty to the extent we can.”

The Senate, whose leaders had considered filing a new map, justified the call for a special master as a way to “streamline this litigation by avoiding unnecessary litigation over the legality of plans proposed by the parties.” They suggested that if the plaintiffs’ maps are submitted their maps will be “on trial” and they will attempt to show they were drawn with partisan political intent.

The Senate also offered the names of three professors with redistricting experience from the universities of Stanford, California and North Carolina.

Senate lawyers also noted that the special master was first proposed by the challengers in a different case when they listed it as one of the options facing the court in 2012, before the congressional map was invalidated and lawmakers failed to agree on redrawing it.

The redistricting detente comes on the heels of a truce over the future of the leadership of the Senate, which had pitted Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, against Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. As the Senate was scheduled to vote on the redistricting map last Thursday, Latvala conceded to Negron, ending the two-year battle.

After two failed special sessions and three years of litigation, the failed redistricting process has cost Florida taxpayers at least $11 million so far.

Florida courts have relied on special masters before to draw redistricting maps when legislators couldn’t reach agreement over how to draw their political lines. Courts hired experts to draw the congressional map in the redistricting cycle of 1992.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and (850) 222-3095. Follow her @MaryEllenKlas