Legislature defends new districts

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The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature on Friday called on the state’s highest court to keep intact new congressional districts that state legislators drew up in August.

In a lengthy legal brief, attorneys for the Legislature insisted that the new districts, which will not be utilized until the 2016 elections, meet new standards intended to eliminate maps drawn for partisan gain. The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled next year to decide an ongoing lawsuit challenging the districts.

But the attorneys also argued that those standards, known as “Fair Districts,” should be declared “invalid” by the court even though they were adopted by voters in 2010. Those standards say legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as “gerrymandering.”

Legislative attorneys argued that the U.S. Constitution gives power to legislators to control congressional elections and that voters do not have the right to enact additional restrictions. But a federal appeals court in 2012 rejected a lawsuit by two members of Congress that made a similar argument.

Rep. Mark Pafford, the Florida House Democratic leader, called the latest effort to overturn the “Fair Districts” amendment “laughable.”

“We’re beyond that point,” said Pafford, a Democrat from West Palm Beach. “We need to concentrate on doing things properly and not letting the political process intrude on what should be a clean process.”

The legal battle over Florida’s congressional map has been going on for more than two years. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, contended that outside GOP consultants used a “shadow” process to help legislators draw districts that benefited Republicans.

Judge Terry Lewis in July agreed there was enough evidence to show that consultants helped make a “mockery” of the process and ruled that two districts were invalid. The two districts flagged by Lewis were a sprawling district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and is held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, a Democrat, and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

Legislators responded by drawing a new map this summer that changed the boundaries of seven of the state’s 27 congressional districts. But because elections were already underway, the new map does not taken effect until the next election. The groups challenging the maps contended the new districts were unconstitutional and they have now taken their challenge up to the Supreme Court.

In the filing, attorneys assert that there is no evidence to show that consultants actually influenced what legislators adopted. But documents recently unsealed spelled out that the GOP consultants worked on maps to help incumbents, while also showing the lengths that the consultants undertook to make sure that their plans would not show up in any public records.

The emails also outline a strategy to recruit people to submit maps publicly that were identical to the ones the consultants were drawing up.