Republicans who control the Florida Legislature kicked off a special session Thursday by proposing to tweak seven of the state’s 27 congressional districts in order to comply with a judge’s ruling.
The session is scheduled to last up to nine days, but legislative leaders are moving ahead quickly with a new map that would make changes to a handful of districts located in north and central Florida.
The session is being sparked by a judge’s July 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.
House Speaker Will Weatherford insisted that the new maps would be free from the partisan influence that Lewis ruled had rendered the previous map adopted in 2012 unconstitutional. The Wesley Chapel Republican said the new proposal was being drawn in consultation between legislative employees and attorneys to address Lewis’ ruling.
“They are working on a map that is legal in nature, that is completely apolitical and is focused on addressing the concerns of the court,” said Weatherford.
But the new map was also drawn up largely behind closed doors. The two Republicans in charge of the redistricting committee met for hours a day earlier to fine-tune the map before releasing it publicly.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and the main senator working on redistricting, maintained that the meeting was legal and ethical under legislative rules.
The proposal released Thursday includes changes to the two districts flagged by Lewis as invalid: The sprawling district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and is held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown and the central Florida district represented by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster.
Brown’s district would no longer include the city of Sanford in central Florida but her district would include more of Putnam County in north Florida. Webster would lose part of Orange County, while the district of U.S. Rep. John Mica’s district would also change.
The coalition of groups that sued the Legislature had proposed shifting Brown’s district to north Florida, saying the current district that reaches down into central Florida should be “abandoned.” The groups in their lawsuit contended Republicans packed Brown’s district with Democrats in order to make it easier for Republicans in adjoining districts.
“Slight alterations will not correct the constitutional defects Judge Lewis identified,” the groups wrote in a letter to Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.
But George Meros, an attorney representing the House, questioned the validity of that proposal. Meros said that such a configuration could result in Brown losing her seat to a white candidate.
“There is no question that it makes it less likely for an African American candidate to win in an east-west configuration,” Meros said. The federal Voting Rights Act bars states from diluting the voting strength of minorities.
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.
Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that consultants helped make a “mockery” of the process and ruled that two districts were invalid.
It’s not clear when the new maps would be implemented. Lewis has left open the possibility of ordering a special election later this year, but legislative leaders have vowed to challenge it.