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Judge orders delay in trial on congressional redistricting case

A Tallahassee judge agreed Thursday to extend the court date in the already long-running lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional redistricting map to give the parties time to fight over whether or not legislators will be required to testify.

Ruling from the bench, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis gave the coalition of voters groups and the state until December or January to conduct the trial, instead of Aug. 19 as was previously scheduled.

The delay gives time for the Florida Supreme Court to rule on whether current and former legislative leaders will have to testify about the central question in the case: whether they violated the constitutional ban against intentionally drawing the maps to benefit their party.

A coalition of voters as well as the League of Women Voter and Common Cause have sued the Legislature to have the congressional maps thrown out. They argue that they violate the Fair Districts amendments which were passed by voters in 2010 and, for the first time, prohibit legislators from drawing districts that favor or disfavor political parties or incumbents.

Lewis has ruled that legislators can be called to testify on a narrow set of issues that could show whether they violated the Fair Districts amendments. But his ruling was rejected by a divided appeals court last month and the plaintiffs have appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Since then, the parties have been engaged in a bitter feud over whether the political consultants hired by the Republican Party of Florida to advise House and Senate leaders and the organizers of the Fair Districts campaign should have to turn over their emails and documents.

The GOP consultants -- Pat Bainter, Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan of the Gainesville-based consulting firm Data Targeting – were ordered by Lewis in April to turn over 1,900 pages of emails and other documents and held in contempt in May for failing his order.

An initial release of documents from them show they were involved in consulting with House staff over crafting of legislative districts, a potential violation of the constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering.

Since then, Republican political consultant Marc Reichelderfer acknowledged in a deposition that he and other GOP political consultants privately met with staff members working for Senate President Don Gaetz and former House Speaker Dean Cannon to “brainstorm” about redistricting.

He also testified that he was provided with a copy of the congressional redistricting maps weeks before the Legislature’s maps were made public so that he could provide advice and input to Cannon and others. 

David King, attorney for Fair Districts and the League of Women Voters, asked the court to delay the case to give them time to obtain the documents from the political consultants. "I know I don't have to tell this court how important this case it -- the first opportunity to interpret these amendments and it ought to be done with the mose fulsome record,'' he said. "That woudln't occur if we pushed forward."

Lewis agreed with the plaintiffs Thursday that “you’re not ready to try the case.”

But, he said, he was sympathetic to the argument of the Florida Secretary of State’s office, which said that delaying the case could disrupt the 2014 elections if the court concludes that the congressional districts were unfairly drawn. 

The goal of the case, said Ashley Davis, lawyer for the Secretary of State’s office, "was not to get this case right from a plaintiff's perspective. It's to  insure an orderly 2014 election cycle." She warned that a trial in October or December could not yield a final map prior to the first election deadline, March 31, 2014. 

But, Lewis concluded, he was not prepared to assume the case will lead to a different map until the case is complete. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,’’ he said. 

The delay in the case was one of two victories for the plaintiffs on Thursday. Another came when Lewis agreed to limit the kinds of documents the Legislative lawyers may obtain from Fair Districts and its chairwoman, Ellen Friedin. 

George Meros, who represents the House of Representatives, argued that Friedin should be required to turn over all emails and documents she generated relating to redistricting generally because, he said, she was “fundamentally involved” in helping to organize how the maps proposed by the plaintiffs’ groups were drawn.

Emails from Friedin in 2011 that have been released to the media show that she was as much of an advocate for Democratic districts as she is accusing Republican legislators of being for Republican districts. Other documents show that the Democrat-leaning Fair Districts organizers hired consultants to draw maps that were designed to "scoop" Jewish voters into the district of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, and to target the districts of Republican Reps. Vern Buchanan and C.W. "Bill" Young.

King argued that there is one important difference between Friedin, and anyone else who worked on the Fair Districts campaign, and lawmakers: they didn’t have a vote. 

Any communications from them that don’t relate to the redistricting maps “don’t have any bearing on this case at all,’’ he said.

Meros said he wanted to broadly question Friedin and obtain her emails in an effort to show she was motivated by partisan purposes and noted that testimony has shown the organizers were so intent on influencing the Democratic composition of the Florida delegation that they held meetings in late 2011 involving U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"All we know now is that there darn well are emails that show that they did things to benefit Democrats," Meros said of the Fair District organizers and their hired map-makers.

But Lewis resisted and ruled that any documents relating to the development of maps were relevant but he prohibited lawyers from seeking any documents prior to Nov. 28, 2011, when the legislative maps were released.

“I’m not too concerned about communications between Ms. Friedin and the map drawer unless it directly affects the map I’m seeing,’’ he said. “You could take that tail to someone’s childhood.”