After four years of bitter legal battles over Florida redistricting, Republicans in the Florida Senate Tuesday passed a bill that makes new demands on the court in future map wars, and sets new standards about which maps take effect and when.
The bill, SB 352 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, passed the Senate 24-14, on a party line vote. It locks maps in place on qualifying day and requires that if a map is challenged 71 days before the primary election, the existing map in force will be the one that applies for the election. If the court orders revised the boundaries after that, the new boundaries will take effect in the next election cycle.
Those changes essentially codify the ruling of Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis in 2015, but the bill also trods new legal ground by also "encouraging" the court to act as if it were a legislative body. Before resolving a redistricting dispute, the Senate bill wants the court to conduct public hearings, record and maintain public records and accept public submissions of draft maps.
"The courts are now passing law,'' Hutson explained. "All I'm doing is what they encouraged us to do. There are things the public should know, how they're coming to these conclusions so we know where their heads are at."
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The proposal is a response to the legal wrangling that snagged the Florida Senate and embarrassed its leaders in the last election cycle. After voters approved the Fair Districts gerrymandering standards in 2010, courts struck down congressional and Senate district maps approved by the Legislature and the grounds that the maps violated the Fair District provisions that prohibited favoring incumbents or political parties.
During debate on the bill last week, Hutson defended that changes as necessary to ensure transparency in the redistricting process and provide certainty for voters and elections supervisors. But Democrats argued that the bill appeared to be intended as retribution against the judicial branch.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, offered an amendment to remove the section of the bill that imposes the new legislative standards on the court, saying "it also just doesn't work. I don't know what a court would do with this kind of language."
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, argued against the amendment, saying the changes were needed to stop what he considered the "arrogance" of the courts, which ordered lawmakers to keep a record of the redistricting deliberations in order to establish whether they were adhering to the provision that prevents them from "intentionally" favoring incumbents or parties.
""The same standards that they think should apply to us in doing our work in the Florida Legislature should apply to them in doing thier work in teh Florida court system,'' Latvala said.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he was offended by that legal proceedings that forced lawmakers to testify under oath about their thought process after the court declared they had violated the Fair Districts provisions.
"For the first time in the history of our Republic, elected officials were rounded up, sat in front of a lawyer who did not have the best interest of the individual they were asking questions of and questioned that individual about the decision that they made in the course of their duties as an elected officials,'' Bradley said. "That was unprecedented. We should all be responsible as elected officials but there is a sacred space and that sacred space is our mental impressions about what we do as legislators."
He continued: ""It was something very different and much beyond the traditions of separation of powers that have been a cornerstone of our democracy for centuries."
Rodriguez said it is not appropriate to be instructing the courts how to do their job but, after concluding he didn't have the votes, he withdrew the amendment.
An earlier version of the Senate bill, which imposed a time limit on when the courts could address a redistricting challenge was amended to remove the time limits.
A similar House bill, HB 953, filed by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, has not been had a hearing in the House.