By Mary Ellen Klas
The Florida Supreme Court now will decide the best way to resolve the impasse over Florida's redistricting maps after a trial judge said Tuesday that he "has no authority" to resolve the dispute between the House and Senate.
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis held a six-minute hearing in his Tallahassee courtroom and told lawyers that the Supreme Court "didn't give me a lot of discretion" when it ordered him to review a map passed by lawmakers in a special session.
Lewis said he will send a report to the high court Wednesday, noting that lawmakers ended the session last week in gridlock, and will "ask them what they want me to do." He said he was "happy to do whatever I'm told."
The Supreme Court could take over the redistricting process itself or send it back to Lewis to solicit maps from the Legislature and plaintiffs and then choose the best maps between them.
"It seems very apparent to us that the Legislature is at loggerheads," said David King, an Orlando lawyer who represents the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and a group of Democrat-leaning voters who challenged the congressional map. He told Lewis that because of the Legislature's stalemate, "the Supreme Court may elect to deal with it themselves."
The Senate filed a motion Monday asking the Florida Supreme Court to relinquish jurisdiction of the case to allow Lewis to conduct a hearing to decide whether the proposed Senate map or the House map was better. The House responded Tuesday, arguing that Lewis already had that authority but, if the court disagreed, they would also support allowing Lewis to step in and decide which map is better.
However, the plaintiffs want the high court to retain control. They sued the state in 2012 for violating the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida constitution, but the case did not go to trial until May 2014 after months of delays over documents and discovery. Lewis then ordered legislators to redraw parts of the map, but he allowed them to keep the original lines in place for the 2014 elections.
The Florida Supreme Court rejected the redrawn map in July, saying the GOP-led Legislature illegally intended to protect incumbents and partisans in violation of the Fair Districts amendments. The historic 5-2 ruling included the unusual order that the court (Lewis) would retain jurisdiction over the case in an effort to expedite new boundary lines in time for the 2016 elections.
Representing the Senate, former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero told Lewis on Tuesday that the Senate wants another special session to "hammer out" another map. But George Meros, attorney for the Florida House, said that while "the House is certainly willing to continue to engage with the Senate to see if we can come up with an enacted map," it believes that time is "of the essence."
After the hearing, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, said he was encouraged by Meros' comments and hoped they were a signal that the House is prepared to return to a special session "to see if there's a compromise map that would put us somewhere in the middle."
But the House quickly dashed those hopes when House deputy chief of staff Ryan Smith sent out a statement saying that another session on the congressional maps was not going to happen.
"Because the court established a very tight time frame, and given the small difference between the two maps is because of a differing legal opinion, we think presenting the House map to the court is the best way to proceed," Smith said. "We would prefer to pass a map with the Florida Senate, but they have been unyielding on their position."
Galvano acknowledged that the court anticipated this could happen when it set the deadline of 100 days for the Legislature to complete a map and get the trial court's approval.
"We're the Legislature. It's not always smooth, it's not always easy and this year is a good example of that," he said.
While the House and Senate have attempted to limit the court's review of the maps proposed by lawmakers, King said that the plaintiffs have different ideas, particularly in Miami-Dade County.
"They may have that in mind, but we'll be offering a map that will be a little different in certain districts -- not a lot," he said.
Specifically, the plaintiffs want to see a change to the Legislature's proposal to shift 35,000 black voters from Congressional District 26 held by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo into Congressional District 27, held by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, King said.
Both Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo are Republicans, but the plaintiffs claim the change was intended to boost the reelection chances of Curbelo, a freshman.
(c)2015 Miami Herald