Court Battle Over Fla. Voting Districts Rages On

Sep 7, 2012

As soon as the Republican-led Florida Legislature released its new voting district maps this year, voter rights groups and the Democratic Party filed lawsuits challenging them. This week, the redistricting battle is still raging in court, with a brand new lawsuit and a hearing in a separate, ongoing suit.

The same groups are bringing both lawsuits, challenging the Florida Senate district map and the congressional district map. The Legislature was required to draw new voting district maps after the 2010 U.S. Census. The plaintiffs include several individual voters, as well as the minority advocacy group La Raza and the Florida League of Women Voters. The League’s president, Deirdre MacNabb, says fair redistricting is not a partisan issue.

“The league has a lot of shoe leather in this battle. We’ve been working on fair redistricting in the state of Florida for 72 years," she says. "We did it when the Democrats were in charge and we’ve done it while the Republicans are in charge.”

The League and other groups claim the maps violate Florida constitutional amendments that voters passed overwhelmingly in 2010. Called the FairDistricts Amendments, they forbid lawmakers from gerrymandering, or intending to draw districts so they favor an incumbent representative or one political party over another. McNabb says the amendments were a historic victory for Florida voters.

“In the past, the incumbent politicians were able to draw the lines in any way they wanted, to suit themselves. And, my goodness, did they ever," she says. "The reelection rate was about 98.9 percent.”

Despite the new rules, the groups’ lawsuit says this year’s Senate districts were drawn to favor Republicans statewide. It gives several specifics, like a Daytona Beach district drawn to split a black community in half. The suit says that dilutes the voting power of the Democratic-leaning community and creates two Republican-leaning districts in its place.

Michael DeSanctis, one of the lawyers representing the groups, wants to take testimony from the legislative staff who drew the maps and from the lawmakers who directed them.

“What their intentions were, why they drew the map the way they did, and why they were, perhaps, instructed to draw the map the way they did has all been kept very much a secret," he says. "It’s not part of the public record. The committees did everything they could to keep the details out of the public record.”

But in a similar case, challenging Florida’s congressional district maps, lawyers for the Florida Legislature are trying to block the opposing side from forcing lawmakers to testify about redistricting. Florida House of Representatives lawyer George Levesque says, lawmakers have what’s called legislative privilege, which protects them against being intimidated by so-called “special interests,” who could otherwise drag them into court every time they disagree with policies.

“The plaintiffs are people who have opposed what the legislature has done and criticized what the legislature has done at every step in the process. Those same legislators are now, after enduring all that that criticism in the media that they went through, now they’re going to be questioned by those same people," Levesque says.

But, he says, just because lawmakers shouldn’t be required to testify doesn’t mean they don’t still answer to their constituents.

“The accountability will be played out in the campaigns. You’ll see members responding at local events," he says. "Those are the times to answer questions, not sitting in a deposition or on the witness stand.”

The Legislature is awaiting Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s ruling on whether lawmakers can be exempt from testifying in the congressional map case, which is set to go to trial next February.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say, even though the maps issue won’t be resolved in time for November’s general election, they hope new maps can be drawn before any future elections.