TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Legislative aides who drew a map of congressional districts backed by the state House defended the plan in court Thursday, even as they conceded that other alternatives might also be good maps or have positive qualities.
The testimony came on the first day of a hearing before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who will decide which of seven plans --- or which combination of aspects of those plans --- will be recommended to the Florida Supreme Court to break a logjam over lines for the state's 27 congressional districts.
What happened in the courtroom also underlined the complexity of the legal challenge, in which the House, the Senate, a coalition of voting-rights organizations, and a group of voters known as the "Romo plaintiffs" have all offered their own proposals for how the districts should be drawn.
"It just makes it a little longer, but it is kind of pleasurable to watch the House and Senate fuss with each other," said David King, a lawyer for the voting-rights organizations that have spent years locked in a legal battle over the map.
The House has backed using a "base map" drawn in seclusion by aides before a special redistricting session held by the Legislature last month. That session collapsed over differences between the House and the Senate over how much lawmakers could change the base map, which was drawn in response to a July Supreme Court decision striking down current districts for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.
House aides Jason Poreda and Jeff Takacs took the stand Thursday and testified that they thought the base map was the best plan that has been put forward so far. But both also admitted that other approaches could comply with the ban on gerrymandering and might even be better.
The two were called particularly to defend the South Florida districts represented by Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo and GOP Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to redraw the districts to avoid splitting the city of Homestead, in part because of suspicions that the city was divided to make both seats friendlier to Republican candidates.
But the voting-rights organizations and the Romo plaintiffs have argued that the proposals put forward by the Legislature redraw the lines in a way that actually makes Curbelo's seat safer without endangering Ros-Lehtinen, a popular politician in South Florida.
"Let me be clear: Our job was not to draw the best way; it was to draw a compliant way," Poreda said under questioning from a lawyer for the voting-rights groups. "I recognize that there could be other ways to have drawn that district, but it doesn't impugn the way that we decided to do it."
Poreda also said the maps proposed by the groups allied against the Legislature could actually make it harder for a candidate supported by the Hispanic community to be elected in Curbelo's district.
At the same time, Poreda had relatively kind words for a map proposed by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, after the collapse of the special session. It is one of the two proposals the Senate has put forward in the current court proceeding.
"If you just look at it from a pure map-drawing perspective, as I stated to my colleagues at the time, it was a good map and split one fewer county," Poreda told Lewis.
But he said he still has some concerns because he doesn't know all of the background behind the drawing of the map.
Meanwhile, Takacs raised concerns about a plan pushed by the Romo plaintiffs, who are supported by the Florida Democratic Party. That map would make sure that Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch and Democratic Congresswoman Lois Frankel live in different districts, though both have vowed to avoid a head-to-head match-up regardless of the maps.
"If there was a thought of having the residences of incumbents pinpointed on a map and then districts drawn around them in an effort to unpair them, to me that's a very flagrant (constitutional) violation to work to try to favor or disfavor incumbents and political parties," Takacs said.
The districts represented by Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen appear to be at the heart of the arguments for now. During opening statements, King, pointed out that the Supreme Court ordered the change in Homestead because of the possibility that lawmakers originally split the city to help the GOP.
"But they found a way to make it perform even better for the Republican Party in their fix," King said.
Maps submitted by King's clients and the Romo plaintiffs would swap different groups of territory between Curbelo's district and Ros-Lehtinen's district to ensure that the two districts have equal population once Homestead is consolidated.
But George Meros, a lawyer for the House, said the fact that neither King's clients nor the Romo plaintiffs submitted alternative maps to lawmakers during the August special session suggested that the proposals now before the court should be viewed with caution.
"Their maps were drawn in secret," Meros said. "Their maps were never disclosed to anyone. Their maps and their experts never graced the door of the Legislature and came in and said, 'You should do this because it's more compliant.' ... And they just hope that they can do it judicially and not legislatively."
Meanwhile, Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero defended the upper chamber's attempts to preserve a district that keeps all of Sarasota County together --- a common feature of both proposals given to the court by the Senate. The district with Sarasota County was not one of eight specifically highlighted by the Supreme Court in its July 9 decision striking down the congressional map.
"We submit that if a district doesn't have to be redrawn, then it's perfectly all right not to redraw it," said Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice.
The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.
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