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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Saying the move would save time and money in the search for a constitutional redistricting plan, the Florida Senate has asked a Leon County judge to appoint an outside expert to draw a map of the chamber’s 40 districts.
If the judge agrees to the Senate’s request, it would essentially kill off the maps floated in a special redistricting session that collapsed last week after a proposed plan drawn by the House was voted down by the Senate. That was the second redistricting session this year to end in failure, after one held in August produced no agreement on congressional districts.
Under the new Senate proposal, a “special master,” as such experts are known in the courts, would be charged with drawing a Senate map that follows a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.
The special master would also be dramatically different from a process that another Leon County judge used to sort out the congressional redistricting mess. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis considered seven maps from the House, Senate, voting-rights organizations and a group of voters supported by the Florida Democratic Party.
Lewis eventually recommended a congressional map drawn by the voting-rights organizations. That plan is now being considered by the Florida Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on Tuesday.
A hearing on the Senate map is scheduled for December 14th to December 18th in front of Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds, who issued an order Thursday setting procedural deadlines that did not mention the Senate’s request.
Lawyers for the Senate argued that a one-day hearing would be enough if Reynolds names a special master.
“The appointment of a consultant would streamline this litigation and reduce the burden to the parties and Florida’s taxpayers by eliminating the need for costly discovery and a five-day evidentiary hearing,” the lawyers wrote. “It would also eliminate any suspicion that the adopted map was laden with improper intent.”
The Senate also argued that the map’s challengers “have a demonstrated history of asking courts to adopt a redistricting map drawn with improper intent,” a reference to congressional maps considered by Lewis that were drawn by employees of consulting firms aligned with Democrats.
The Senate asked Reynolds to appoint a master by next Wednesday, the same day parties are supposed to submit proposed Senate maps to the court.
According to the filing, the House hasn’t taken a position on the request for a special master. In a statement issued Thursday, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said his chamber would defer to the Senate.
“Without a legislatively approved map, the issue will now return to the courts,” Crisafulli said. “During the legal proceedings, the House intends once again to defer as much as possible to the Senate. The House has fulfilled its duty to the extent we can.”
But a lawyer for the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, which have led the legal challenges, told Reynolds in a letter Thursday that the organizations don’t agree with the idea of a special master.
“We do not believe appointment of an expert consultant to draw the remedial Senate map in lieu of a remedial trial is appropriate, and will be pleased share with the court our views on that issue when the court considers the Senate’s motion,” attorney David King wrote.
If the court does agree to the Senate’s motion, the chamber recommended three experts: Nathaniel Persily, a professor at the Stanford Law School who has served as a special master in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Maryland; Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has also served as a special master in New York and Georgia and has been a consultant on other cases; and Theodore Arrington, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who now lives in New Mexico.
Arrington, who was a consultant for Common Cause Florida in a 1992 redistricting case, said in a resume filed with the court that he was involved in Republican politics in three states in the 1960s and 1970s. But he said he is registered as a Democrat in New Mexico because the state doesn’t allow independents to vote in primaries “and the Democrats are dominant in New Mexico.”
The redistricting legal battles stem from voter approval in 2010 of the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards.
The Florida Supreme Court this summer ruled that current congressional districts did not comply with the standards, leading lawmakers to hold a special session in August. When the House and Senate were unable to reach agreement on a plan, the map-drawing process went to Lewis, who sent his recommendation to the Supreme Court.
After the Supreme Court invalidated the current congressional districts, the Legislature and the voting-rights groups reached a settlement that acknowledged current Senate districts also likely would not be upheld. That led to the special session that ended in failure last week.
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.