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Redistricting overhaul clears first Senate panel

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A bill aimed at speeding up the handling of political redistricting court cases breezed through its first Senate committee on Tuesday.

The legislation (SB 352) was OK’d by the Senate Judiciary Committee with only state Sen. Bobby Powell, a Riviera Beach Democrat, voting against it.

“I do believe it’s initially incumbent on us to be transparent so we don’t wind up in these situations,” Powell said. “This is something that basically we brought on ourselves.”

The bill is a response to court challenges over the state’s redrawn districts after the 2010 Census.

“What occurred in 2012 was quite different than previous redistricting efforts,” a staff analysis said. “The redistricting plans were litigated over almost 4 years through different state courts before being declared valid.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida and other plaintiffs sued the state for violating the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.

Their suit said the new maps violated a prohibition against gerrymandering, the manipulation of political boundaries to favor a particular incumbent or party, in this case, Republicans.

In December 2015, the state Supreme Court approved a new version of the state’s 27 congressional districts, more than three years after the lawsuit had first alleged they were unconstitutional.

The Legislature tried but failed to agree on a redrawn congressional map in a Special Session that summer, and the matter bounced to a Tallahasseee judge, who used the plaintiff’s maps.

Separately, another Tallahassee judge redrew the state’s 40 senatorial districts after the Senate settled that challenge by admitting fault. An effort to redraw those lines also ended in failure, with the courts again adopting the plaintiff’s recommendations.

Sen. Travis Hutson, the Elkton Republican behind the bill, said the legislation does three things: Requires courts to fast-track challenges to redrawn political maps, “locks” the maps in place in time for candidate qualifying, and encourages courts to follow the same procedures as the Legislature if they decide to draw their own maps.

“We have to have a ‘time certain’ for these maps so we don’t have candidates confused” over which seat they’re running for, Hutson told the panel. “And, more importantly, so voters don’t have confusion.”

Representatives for both the League and Common Cause, plaintiffs in the redistricting actions, opposed the bill. It next heads to the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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