Legislature starts redistricting session

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Florida legislators kicked off a special session on Thursday to redraw the state’s 27 congressional districts in the wake of a state judge declaring the current map invalid.

Republican legislative leaders outlined their plan at the start: Draw a new map that would only change a handful of districts including two districts flagged by a judge as being drawn up to benefit the GOP.

House Speaker Will Weatherford insisted that the new maps would be free from the partisan influence that Judge Terry Lewis ruled had rendered the previous map adopted in 2012 as unconstitutional. The Wesley Chapel Republican said that the new proposal was being drawn in consultation between legislative employees and attorneys to address Lewis’s 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.

The new map is scheduled to be released sometime Thursday. Lewis has given legislators until Aug. 15 to draw up a new map. He will then consider whether to order a special election that relies on the new map. Legislative leaders, however, say they will fight any effort to put the map in place before 2016.

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. One is 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.

House and Senate leaders have insisted this time around that legislators retain all emails and documents. The decision by the Legislature to destroy emails from the 2012 session drew the suspicion of Lewis in his ruling. Legislative leaders have also told lawmakers that if they come up with any proposals they must publicly announce who helped draw it up.

But there were already signs of partisan sniping at the onset. Democratic legislators want to spend time during the special session dissecting the role that GOP operatives played in drawing up the map that Lewis threw out.

“This was intentional,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale and the House Democratic leader. “It was done in violation of the constitution.”

The groups that sued the Legislature also raised similar questions at the start of the session. In a lengthy letter, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause also called on legislators to make more substantial changes to the current districts, including looking at switching Brown’s district to one that stretches across north Florida instead of central Florida.