Redistricting Transparency Bill Moves Forward, Despite Concerns About Balance Of Powers

Mar 9, 2017

A bill aimed at clearing up confusion around redistricting court cases is ready for a vote on the Senate floor. But there are still concerns the plan challenges the independence of the judiciary.

Credit Nick Evans / WFSU News

Florida’s process of redrawing legislative districts has undergone some big changes in the last seven years. In 2010, voters decided redistricting shouldn’t favor political parties or incumbents. When state lawmakers redrew the maps in 2012, a slew of legal challenges followed. The string of court cases made it difficult for candidates to know where the lines fell, says Palm Coast Republican Senator Travis Hutson.

“Now behind closed doors we didn’t get any hearing, any recordings, any emails. It was outside of the public’s eye," Hutson said. "And I think the voters and the legislature needs a little bit more transparency so that we can be more certain on how to draw the maps going forward.”

He wants the courts to act more like the Legislature, and keep the public in the loop.

“Conduct public hearings involving proposed district configuration. Record and maintain minutes of meetings if the meetings are closed to the public. Provide a method for the public to submit and comment on additional maps. And offer the public an opportunity to review and comment on any map before the plan is finalized,” Hutson said.

But Ben Wilcox of advocacy group Common Cause Florida says there’s no need for the measure.

“I think it’s a solution in search of problem,” Wilcox said.

Here’s some context: the relationship between the Legislature and the courts is a brittle one. From time to time, what the Republican-led statehouse sees as good policy, the courts see as unconstitutional. Miami Democratic Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez says this bill runs afoul of the separation of powers.

“It’s Civics 101 that we have a role and the courts have a role. The courts’ role is to resolve disputes that are before them. To apply facts, apply the law to a set of facts. And say what the law is and what the facts are. Our job is very different. Our job is to get in there, hash out public debates on issues that are coming up,” he said.

But Senator Hutson says the requests for more transparency and public meetings, are just that, requests.

“We’re not requiring. We’re not mandating. We’re encouraging that we get all the information on any map that they may draw,” Hutson said.

Which begs the question, what’s the point? This comes at a time when lawmakers are trying to chip away at the courts’ powers. They want term limits for more judges, and the ability to overrule state Supreme Court decisions they don’t like. Jose Javier Rodriguez says lawmakers shouldn't step on judges' toes.

“It just isn’t appropriate, I don’t think for us, to be passing something that really has more of a flavor of at this point sending a message about redistricting to the courts, rather than doing what we ought to do,” he said.

But Republican Senator Tom Lee of Brandon believes the plan won’t impede the courts.

“It doesn’t preclude the court from throwing out that election, if they so choose, at a later date,” Lee said.

The bill passed its final committee stop in the Senate Thursday. But skeptics are keeping their guard up, at a time when lawmakers are openly trying to limit the courts’ powers.