Florida Senate passes redistricting push back: Court told us what to do, so now we'll tell it what to do
After four years of bitter legal battles over Florida redistricting, Republicans in the Florida Senate Tuesday passed a bill that makes new demands on the court in future map wars, and sets new standards about which maps take effect and when.
The bill, SB 352 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, passed the Senate 24-14, on a party line vote. It locks maps in place on qualifying day and requires that if a map is challenged 71 days before the primary election, the existing map in force will be the one that applies for the election. If the court orders revised the boundaries after that, the new boundaries will take effect in the next election cycle.
Those changes essentially codify the ruling of Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis in 2015, but the bill also trods new legal ground by also "encouraging" the court to act as if it were a legislative body. Before resolving a redistricting dispute, the Senate bill wants the court to conduct public hearings, record and maintain public records and accept public submissions of draft maps.
"The courts are now passing law,'' Hutson explained. "All I'm doing is what they encouraged us to do. There are things the public should know, how they're coming to these conclusions so we know where their heads are at."
The proposal is a response to the legal wrangling that snagged the Florida Senate and embarrassed its leaders in the last election cycle. After voters approved the Fair Districts gerrymandering standards in 2010, courts struck down congressional and Senate district maps approved by the Legislature and the grounds that the maps violated the Fair District provisions that prohibited favoring incumbents or political parties.
During debate on the bill last week, Hutson defended that changes as necessary to ensure transparency in the redistricting process and provide certainty for voters and elections supervisors. But Democrats argued that the bill appeared to be intended as retribution against the judicial branch.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, offered an amendment to remove the section of the bill that imposes the new legislative standards on the court, saying "it also just doesn't work. I don't know what a court would do with this kind of language."
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, argued against the amendment, saying the changes were needed to stop what he considered the "arrogance" of the courts, which ordered lawmakers to keep a record of the redistricting deliberations in order to establish whether they were adhering to the provision that prevents them from "intentionally" favoring incumbents or parties.