Florida legislators are returning to the state Capitol with a simple goal: Redraw the state’s 27 congressional districts with as few changes as possible.
The nine-day special session that kicks off Thursday is being sparked by a judge’s ruling that found two districts were drawn illegally to benefit Republicans. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis last week gave legislators until Aug. 15 to draw up a new map.
But instead of fighting either ruling GOP legislative leaders have decided to adopt a new congressional map that calls for changes to just a handful of districts.
That map will focus primarily on the two districts flagged by the judge: A sprawling district that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster.
The final product adopted by legislators will likely include targeted fixes to the boundaries of those two districts and some changes to adjoining districts. It is improbable they would make widespread changes such as one proposal that calls for shifting Brown’s district from central Florida to north Florida.
“It seems to me what the Legislature ought to do is take the judge’s ruling seriously and literally and resolve the problems associated with the two districts that he found to be invalid and try to minimize any unintended chaos,” Senate President Don Gaetz said Wednesday. “I don’t think we should look for an excuse to set off a chain of dominoes that will cause more confusion or chaos than is necessary.”
Voters in 2010 passed the “Fair Districts” amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, contended that the Republican consultants used a “shadow” process to draw districts that benefited Republicans.
The lawsuits alleged that districts all over the state, including ones located in South Florida and the Tampa area, violated the new standards but Lewis only ruled that two were unconstitutional.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said it’s clear that GOP leaders are willing to draw a new map now to avoid the chance that other districts could be declared unconstitutional if a court fight lingered.
“I think the Republicans got the map they pretty much wanted,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “They figure they can do some these little changes and stave off more changes.”
Once legislators adopt a new map it won’t necessarily end the legal battles. The groups that filed the lawsuit wanted Lewis to draw up a new map and argued unsuccessfully legislators couldn’t be trusted to draw up valid maps. One of their attorneys earlier this week said “it remains to be seen whether they will produce maps that comply with the constitution.”
Legislative leaders also remain firmly opposed to holding a special election later this year with the new map. They say that the new map shouldn’t be implemented until 2016. Lewis said he is considering ordering a special election after November, but admits he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
If Lewis did order a special election it would likely trigger a federal lawsuit from the Legislature that argues a state judge doesn’t have the authority to order federal elections.