Florida

Coalition files suit to invalidate redistricting law

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, listens to Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton explain the Florida supreme court's ruling about redistricting during the start of special session, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, listens to Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton explain the Florida supreme court's ruling about redistricting during the start of special session, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

A bipartisan group of voters added to the list of redistricting lawsuits this week, filing a case in federal court challenging the Fair Districts amendments of the Florida Constitution as unconstitutional.

The group, which includes some Alachua-based Republicans who call themselves the “Conservative Coalition for Free Speech and Association,” is suing Secretary of State Ken Detzner in an attempt to invalidate the anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters in 2010.

Several members of the Alachua coalition fought the release of their private emails in pending redistricting lawsuits, claiming it violates their First Amendment right to free speech and association. The court ordered the release of a limited number of those documents, which showed that many of them were political operatives engaged in what the court called a “shadow redistricting” process that aimed to influence the Legislature’s drawing of its maps in a way that favored Republicans.

Meanwhile, the fate of the state’s congressional redistricting maps remained in limbo Friday as legislators and challengers awaited word from the Florida Supreme Court as to how it wants to proceed to resolve the impasse over the congressional redistricting. The Legislature adjourned its special session last week without a final enacted map and the trial court judge assigned to review the map has asked the Supreme Court how to proceed.

Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano told the Herald/Times on Friday that he hopes the court gives lawmakers another shot at drawing the districts themselves. On Thursday, Galvano offered a “compromise” map that attempts to appease many of the concerns the House had with the final Senate map. On Friday, House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva responded in a letter to House members that the Senate map had promise — but also warned that it may be too late.

“If the Senate had offered an amendment like the map filed by Chairman Galvano yesterday afternoon, that map would have been given serious consideration,” Oliva wrote.

On the same day Galvano offered up his new plan, the challengers to the redistricting map asked the Supreme Court to take over the map-drawing process, saying that after three attempts and three failures the court should no longer trust lawmakers to work it out.

But Galvano believes the court may be a bit more open-minded and may be willing to give lawmakers more time. If lawmakers can agree to convene again in special session and pass the compromise map, the challengers will have an opportunity to raise questions in court about whatever legislators pass, he said.

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed Thursday included a group of three Republicans and two Democrats in addition to the coalition of Republican political operatives. They echoed many of the complaints of Florida Republican legislators and blasted the Florida Supreme Court for violating their First Amendment rights.

The court’s 5-2 ruling invalidating the congressional map because it showed improper partisan intent was “overreaching,” said Stafford Jones, head of the Alachua Republican Executive Committee and a member of the Conservative Coalition for Free Speech and Association.

The court “quite cynically, if not dangerously, redefined protected political free speech and the anonymous petitioning of government as a ‘conspiracy;’ a conspiracy to commit Democracy?” he said.

According to documents filed in the current redistricting lawsuits challenging the congressional and state Senate maps, Jones and others were instrumental in recruiting Republicans with scripted talking points to appear at the Legislature’s public hearings across the state.

They also actively worked on and submitted Republican-leaning maps as part of the public submission process, pieces of which were included in the final versions of the maps adopted by lawmakers, court documents show.

This is the second lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Florida that attempts to invalidate the state Supreme Court’s ruling. The district is believed to be most favorable to conservatives.

Documents obtained by the Herald/Times show that taxpayers have already spent $11 million in legal fees for the legislature’s defense of its redistricting maps. The Democratic Party has used that to launch a campaign and distribute mailers targeting individual lawmakers for wasting taxpayer money.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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