March 29, 2017

House amendment turns the tables on judges in redistricting cases

RedistrictOldNewIn an aggressive attempt to weaken the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, a House committee on Wednesday passed legislation to create new hurdles to legal challenges to the maps lawmakers draw. 

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee voted 14-3 to change the implementation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Constitution, which subjected the Republican-led Legislature to years of litigation and an embarrassing admission that they intentionally drew districts that favored incumbents and parties in violation of the law. Three Democrats joined with Republicans to support the bill.

Under the amendment added to HB 953 by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, any challenges to a redistricting map would have to occur within 60 days after the maps are passed, effectively short-circuiting the time challengers can obtain records and documents to prepare a case. 

The bill also suspends any litigation that occurs 71 days before candidates qualify for election and freezes the districts in place until after the election. And, in an attempt to turn the tables on the judiciary if it must resolve a dispute over the maps, the bill subjects judges to cross-examination. Story here. 

April 18, 2016

Court rejects U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown's redistricting claim, court-ordered map stays intact

A federal court Monday rejected a claim from U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, that a North Florida congressional district designed to elect a black candidate violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the Northern District of Florida is the latest in more than four years of legal challenges over Florida’s redistricting maps and is likely to bring some finality to the congressional map approved by the Florida Supreme Court last year.

Brown, joined by dozens of black voters from north and central Florida, argued that the new district's east-west configuration across the top of the state violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the black vote and disenfranchises black voters from electing their preferred candidates.

But the court ruled that the district’s configuration -- which was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court -- not only will benefit black voters in North Florida, but it also enabled the creation of District 10 in Orlando, which is "very likely" to elect the candidate of choice for 120,000 black voters there.

"The problem with Plaintiffs’ argument is that they simply have not produced evidence that racial-bloc voting in these other districts will defeat their candidates of choice,'' the court said.

"...In fact, what electoral evidence has been provided demonstrates the opposite—that in East-West District 5, the black-preferred candidate will prevail and in Congressional District 10, the black-preferred candidate will likely prevail more often than not."

Brown and the other plaintiffs wanted the court to prevent the map from being used to elect candidates in November, leaving candidates in limbo about what they will do.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, now could choose to challenge Brown in the district or run for a Republican-dominated District 2 also in North Florida. Several candidates, including former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, have already expressed an interest in running for the District 5 seat.

"I'm disappointed the Second Congressional District will be transformed from a fair, moderate district into two extreme partisan districts,'' Graham said in a statement Monday night. "Dividing Tallahassee hurts North Florida and our community. Now that the lengthy legal challenges to the maps have been completed, I will make a decision as to what's next as soon as possible. Though the maps may have changed, my commitment to public service has not."

In the 26-page ruling, the court concluded that Brown and the plaintiffs presented no convincing evidence to support their claim that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat the black community’s preferred candidate. Instead, the court said, the new map may reduce the size of the black vote but it will not dilute it.  Download Order in Brown's case

"A win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory,'' wrote Judges Robin Rosenbaum, Robert Hinkle and Mark Walker.

The court acknowledged the "appalling history and continuing legacy of racial discrimination in northeastern Florida" but said the anecdotal testimony of several local officials that blacks could not be elected to countywide offices was not enough to prove the district was invalid.

The League of Women Voters led the lawsuit to challenge the congressional map drawn by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, arguing that it was drawn to protect incumbents like Brown and GOP candidates, in violation of the violated the Fair Districts provisions of the state constitution.

After four-years of legal skirmishes, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the challengers last July and concluded that the map Florida had used in the last two congressional elections was invalid. When the Legislature could not agree on a new congressional plan during a special session last August, a lower court solicited maps and choose a map drawn by the League of Women Voters.

Brown has not indicated whether she would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

February 18, 2016

Diaz de la Portilla: killing guns and immigration bills was 'common sense'

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, on Wednesday laid out his rationale for why he decided to kill several controversial gun and immigration bills by not scheduling them for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, and he warned he will kill the bills again next year if they return.

"Not agendaing those bad bills was really nothing more than common sense,'' Diaz de la Portilla told an audience of the League of Women Voters Wednesday evening. The group recognized Diaz de la Portilla as one of three lawmakers to receive the group's  annual "Making Democracy Work" award. Also receiving the award was Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Rep. Dave Kerner, D-West Palm Beach. 

Diaz de la Portilla is up for re-election in a newly-drawn District 37, thanks to the lawsuit brought by the League and a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters who challenged the Senate map drawn by Senate Republicans.

But he could face fierce competition from Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who has told the Herald/Times that he is considering running for the district after the court approved the map drawn by the League's consultant. The new District 37 is heavily Hispanic and leans Democratic with a higher percentage of registered Democrats than Diaz de la Portilla has in his current district. In 2012, the district voted for Barack Obama with 53.6 percent of the vote.

Diaz de la Portilla reminded the group, however, that his "common sense" approach to legislation has included voting against what he called the "union-busting bill" known as "paycheck protection" during his first term in 2011. "I was just a freshman senator but it just didn't make sense and would have not been fair to a lot of people in my community,'' he said. 

He spoke about how he opposed attempts to split the Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions -- an effort led by former Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon with the support of many in his party -- and Diaz de la Portilla reminded the group he was the deciding vote to kill a bill to convert public schools into charter schools.

"I didn't agenda the campus carry bill last year either,'' he said to applause. "And if the bill is back again next year and I'm here and that bill is filed again, that bill won't be heard next year either." 

Diaz de la Portilla noted that the proponents of the bill to allow concealed carry permit holders to openly carry their guns "want to make it seem as if it's some kind of gun rights issue. It's not a gun rights issue,'' he said. "It's a public safety issue. It's bad public policy."

He said that with both the open carry and campus carry bills, he heard that "law enforcement is against it, university professors are against it, college presidents and the majority of students are against it. There is only one strong, special interest group that's for it. Only one,'' he said, a reference to the influential National Rifle Association.

"We in the Legislature are elected to make decisions that are common sense, to make decisions that are for the people of the State of Florida,'' he said. "So if there are just a few people in the State of Florida who are backing a special interest, they just want to help the manufacturers to keep themselves relevant. I will not agenda open carry next year if I'm here to make that decision."

He called the immigration-related bills "xenophobic" and said that "we've had that debate" and "the majority of the people don't think these are ideas that we should be spending our time on." He announced Wednesday that SB 872, which punishes so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit enforcement of federal immigration orders, will not get a hearing in his committee. The companion measure, HB 675, has passed the Florida House.

Diaz de la Portilla has had a mixed record on voting and redistricting. In 2011, he supported a bill that reduced the number of weeks for early voting from two to one, and in 2013, after long lines plagued South Florida polls in 2012, he filed legislation to reinstate early voting the Sunday before Election Day. 

In 2015, a redistricting map he sponsored and the Senate passed was rejected by House leaders because they believed it was drawn to benefit Diaz de la Portilla, or his brother's efforts to seek re-election. Diaz de la Portilla  said he was motivated to increase Hispanic voting strength and keep Little Havana whole. He also complained that the alternative map promoted by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would diminish Hispanic voting strength. 

Diaz de la Portilla's position against the gun bills made him a target of some critical editing on his Wikipedia page, according to a public radio editor who discovered the changes.

He told the League that he would "rather spend the committee's time on [bills related to] mental illness, and dealing with direct file of juveniles....dealing with quality of life issues that make sense for most people, not dealing with special interest issues."

"I think it's important as an elected official to look at each issue on the merits and use your common sense,'' he said. "What the people of Florida want is somebody who will make decisions on the merits."

January 20, 2016

Florida Legislature won't appeal redistricting ruling; sets districts for 2016 election


The Florida Legislature is giving up the fight and will not contest a court ruling that redraws all of the state’s 40 state senate districts for the 2016 election cycle.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he told Senate President Andy Gardiner on Wednesday that the Legislature should let court-ordered maps go into effect, even though he says there were legal issues that were open to appeal.

“My recommendation is for us not to appeal, and the Senate President has agreed,” Galvano said.

The decision leaves the state with a new map that will recast Florida's political landscape, giving millions of people new representation and bolstering Democratic chances in 2016. Voters in South Tampa, East Hillsborough, and large portions of Pasco County will get new state senators, as a result of the map. In Miami-Dade in casts incumbents against one another in potential new districts in a presidential election cycle.

Democratic party analysts say the new maps are fairer and gives them a better chance of winning additional seats in a Florida Senate that has been dominated by the Republican Party for most of the last two decades.

The decision not to appeal also ends a tumultuous process that cost taxpayers over $11 million, led to four trials, three special sessions and eight rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee ruled in late December that he was rejecting the Senate’s latest attempts to draw district lines and turning instead to a map backed by a coalition of votings rights groups, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. 

Galvano said after that ruling that the Legislature was considering appealing the decision or even requesting a re-hearing of the case. But Galvano said Wednesday that he’s ready to accept the court ruling and move forward with the new districts in place for the 2016 election cycle. He said the issues he has can be addressed in future redistrictings, which happen ever 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed.

The Legislature has been trying -- and failing -- to draw new district lines since 2012. But those maps and subsequent redistricting efforts have been struck down by the courts after the League of Women Voters and Common Cause challenged them in court saying they violated the fair districts provision of the state constitution, which mandates that lawmakers draw political boundaries without the intent to favor incumbents or political parties.

January 15, 2016

Court sets oral argument date in Corrine Brown redistricting case


During the next two months, lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, over Florida's new congressional maps will file briefs to make their case with federal judges.

But if all else fails, expect them to go to court March 25.

The U.S. District Court in Tallahassee this week set oral arguments for 9 a.m. that day "if the court determines to have a hearing or oral argument."

Specifically, the hearing would be about Brown's request for an injunction to stop her new district boundaries from going into effect.

The Florida Supreme Court officially approved a new map last year after ruling against the Legislature in a case that claimed unconstitutional partisan bias went into drawing Florida's congressional districts.

Brown's new district -- District 5 -- is dramatically different from her current one. This, she claims, disenfranchises voters in some of the African-American communities between Jacksonville and Orlando that she has represented for more than two decades.

But if the district court wants to intervene, it will have to act fast. County supervisors of elections must mail overseas ballots for the congressional primary by July 16.

January 08, 2016

Abruzzo confirms bid for new south Palm Beach County Senate district

State Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, made official today his plans to seek re-election in the newly drawn Senate District 29, which includes most of the southern half of Palm Beach County.

And in an attempt to boost his chances in a potential primary battle against fellow state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, Abruzzo also announced a flurry of endorsements from local and county officials -- including a few from Sachs' current district.

New configurations for all 40 Senate districts were set in the map approved last week by Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds and awaiting final approval by the Florida Supreme Court.

Both Abruzzo and Sachs had declared interest in the new District 29, which includes much of Abruzzo's current district and part of Sachs'.

Under the current boundaries, Abruzzo represents most of western and parts of northern Palm Beach County, while Sachs represents coastal areas of south-eastern Palm Beach County and north-eastern Broward County.

Abruzzo, who was elected in 2012, announced support today from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, as well as Palm Beach County state Reps. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth and Broward County Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.

County Commissioners Melissa McKinlay and Shelley Vana, former County Commissioner Burt Aaronson and city officials from Belle Glade, South Bay and Wellington -- many of them Democrats -- also threw their support behind Abruzzo.

Photo credit: Florida Senate

January 06, 2016

Florida redistricting shuffle: Gwen Margolis to move to seek re-election in new Senate District 38

Miami Democrat Sen. Gwen Margolis said Wednesday that if the Florida Supreme Court approves the final state Senate map, she will be moving from her Coconut Grove home to seek re-election in adjacent District 38, under the court-approved state Senate map. 

Under the plan approved by the trial court, Margolis is paired in District 37 with Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, while it follows the boundaries of the City of Miami, it is now nearly evenly divided politically.  District 38 runs from Miami Beach to Aventura.
Margolis, 81, was first elected to the Legislature in 1981 and served for 12 years, including serving as the first woman Senate president in 1990. She was elected again to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected under the current redistricting map in 2012.
"She looks forward to continuing to meet with her constituents and voters who have long supported her as their state senator,” said Christian Ulvert, Margolis' campaign advisor. 

January 05, 2016

Sitting Miami-Dade senators pitted against each other in November election -- unless 2 move


When Circuit Judge George Reynolds approved a new state senate map last week, lawmakers’ political careers were suddenly thrown into flux. Much of that chaos hit in the middle of Miami-Dade County, where two pairs of sitting senators found themselves living in districts together.

It poses a tough choice: Move, perhaps to a more politically friendly district, or face another well established incumbent in the November election.

Two Miami-Dade lawmakers were much luckier. Sens. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, will run for reelection in very similar districts to those they represent now. However, because of random district numbers drawn Tuesday and the Senate’s staggered terms, both will face term limits two years earlier than they would have under the previous plan.

Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who were both drawn into District 40 near Kendall.

Most of Bullard’s current district lies to the south and west, stretching down to the Keys and in the expanses of western Miami-Dade County. Either could be a good place for Bullard — a household name in the area after his mother, Larcenia Bullard, spent 20 years in the Legislature — to run. Both districts voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

But District 40 is heavily Hispanic, and that could offer an in for Flores.

Bullard said Tuesday that he hasn’t yet decided where he will run. He hopes “diplomacy” can be used to avert a full-on collision with Flores.

“Flores needs to decide what is better suited for her,” he said.

If Flores moves, it’d only be for a two-year stint before she would face term limits. But she is close with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the next Senate president, and is a likely pick for a top spot in the chamber’s leadership.

On the county’s Atlantic coast, it’s likely a showdown between Sens. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, could be averted by a convenient move.

The map approved by Reynolds put both senators in District 37, the area around the city of Miami. It’s territory Diaz de la Portilla and his relatives have won for years, but it also favors Democrats during presidential elections.

But just to the north lies District 38, stretching from Miami Beach to Aventura, a lock for virtually any Democrat and especially for Margolis, who has represented the region for decades.

Would she move, though, for just two years in office? Margolis didn’t return Times/Herald calls for comment.

Still, it sounds like she might. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, plans to run for that seat as soon as Margolis is done in the Legislature. And he doesn’t plan on running in 2016.

“The senator has told me she is going to run for reelection in that seat, that she is moving from Coconut Grove and she is going to move up into the district,” he said.

Tampa Bay area state senators on collision course for GOP primary because of new redistricting maps


State Sen. Wilton Simpson is not moving under any circumstances, saying suggestions he might move to a new district to avoid facing another incumbent and preserve his status as a future Senate leader “nonsense.”

Simpson, R-Trilby, said he will run for re-election in a the new district where his present home and farm is located, but which also includes the home of Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who also plans to seek re-election. Legg said he's running for re-election and suggested Simpson could move south into a different district to avoid a primary fight that has been made possible because of the latest turn in the state’s years long redistricting saga.

"I've raised my family here," Simpson said. "I've spent a lof of my life here. My intention is to run where my seat has been drawn. This is a good seat."

A state court adopted new redistricting maps last week that put Legg and Simpson into the same district. On Tuesday, the Legislature assigned district numbers to the 40 districts adopted by the court, putting Simpson and Legg into what is the new 10th District. That district will include all of Citrus and Hernando counties, plus most of central and northeastern Pasco County.

A Simpson-Legg Republican primary battle could have a lot more riding on it than just who represents Trinity, Land O’Lakes and Trilby. Simpson is in line to become the Florida Senate President in 2021 - marking potentially the first time ever Pasco County would have a resident in that powerful position. But if Legg were to defeat Simpson in a primary, that possibility would be over.

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January 04, 2016

Odd (& even) politics: Florida auditor will renumber Senate districts

It's a numbers game with real political consequences. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has asked the state auditor general to randomly assign numbers to all 40 Senate districts Tuesday, as directed by Circuit Judge George Reynolds' redistricting decision issued on Dec. 30.

All 40 Senate seats will be up for election next fall for the second time in four years -- an unprecedented consequence of Florida's redistricting saga.

Superstitious senators will be crossing fingers and rubbing rabbits' feet to get the numbers they're seeking -- and then they may be calling their favorite Realtor.

Twenty Senate districts will be assigned odd numbers and 20 will be given even numbers. Senators who are assigned odd numbers would run for four-year terms in the fall, and senators in even-numbered districts would run for two-year terms, followed by four-year terms in 2018 -- if they're not termed out by then. Those "even" senators would potentially serve an additional two years for a total of 10 years, under the Florida system of electing senators to staggered terms.

No one in the Senate appears to have more at stake in the numbers game than Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, needs a winnable even-numbered district to fulfill his ambition to be Senate president in the 2020-2022 cycle. Simpson's "lucky number" on the court-approved remapping of districts is 18 (his current district number, and the number tentatively assigned to a new Pasco-Hillsborough Senate seat). If it doesn't happen, Simpson will be termed out of office in 2020.

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