Both Sides Confident As Redistricting Trial Ends

By Brandon Larrabee, The News Service Of Florida

A historic challenge to the congressional districts drawn by state lawmakers two years ago is now in the hands of a Leon County circuit judge after a trial in the case wrapped up Wednesday.

Pressed by a deadline to end the case by mid-afternoon, lawyers for the Legislature and for voting-rights organizations fighting the districts did not give their expected closing arguments after questioning of a legislative aide went on longer than expected.

But attorneys for both sides told reporters afterward that they had accomplished their goals.

“We’re confident that we’ve met whatever standard the court is going to hold us to in this case with our evidence,” said David King, a lawyer for the groups challenging the congressional map.

But Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice representing the Senate in the case, said lawmakers and staff members testified repeatedly they did not illegally craft districts that would help or hurt political parties or candidates — something banned by the Fair Districts constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.

“And we think that all the plaintiffs have done was put up innuendo and whatever other third parties were doing that were not involved,” Cantero said. “They have not shown that anything [improper] has affected the drawing of the maps.”

The trial, which lasted two and a half weeks, provided a rare window into the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and legislative districts. It was the first under the Fair Districts standards, which effectively ban gerrymandering and require districts to be compact and keep cities and counties whole when possible.

A handful of issues emerged during the trial as likely keys to Judge Terry Lewis’ decision. Among them:

—The drawing of Congressional District 5, which winds through eight counties from Duval to Orange, wrapping in enclaves of black voters to create a district likely to elect a candidate favored by African-Americans.

Supporters of the district, represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, say the Legislature increased the African American share of the vote in the district to more than 50 percent to strengthen the protections provided by the federal Voting Rights Act. Opponents say the true goal was to carve Democratic-leaning voters out of surrounding districts to give Republicans safer seats.

— A December 2010 meeting between legislative staff members and political consultants shortly after the Fair Districts amendments passed. The Legislature’s attorneys have said the main purpose of the meeting was to try to figure out how to follow the new standards and that the consultants were eventually told they couldn’t be involved in drawing the maps.

— The origin of a map submitted under the name of former Florida State University student Alex Posada.

Posada said last week that he did not draw that map, did not submit it to the Legislature and did not authorize anyone else to do so on his behalf, according to a lawyer for the coalition of voting rights groups.

King said Wednesday questions remain about the Posada plan.

“There are very few answers about that,” he said. “That map — it seems to be an orphan. Nobody wants to claim it.”

But Cantero waved off the focus on the map, saying lawmakers considered plans submitted by the public based on their merits and couldn’t control who sent in a plan through a system set up to receive citizens’ proposals.

“If it has compliant districts, if the counties are whole, if it’s compact, things like that, those are the things that we looked at,” he said.

In lieu of closing statements, both sides are expected file briefs over the next several days summing up their arguments. Lewis is expected to rule this summer, but his decision is not expected to be the final word.

“I think that either side is going to appeal no matter what happens,” Cantero said.