Senate admits election districts are unconstitutional

BY BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE − In what one critic of the Legislature called an “unprecedented admission,” the Florida Senate conceded Tuesday that the chamber’s districts are unconstitutional and should be redrawn in a special session beginning in October.

An agreement between the Legislature and a coalition of voting-rights groups and citizens that challenged the Senate map raised the possibility of concluding a three-year legal saga over the once-a-decade redistricting process. The court battle exposed how the state’s political boundaries were drawn and set new precedents under the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.

The deal also comes less than three weeks after the Florida Supreme Court struck down eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts for violating one of the amendments − a case that was ominous for lawmakers because opponents of the map felt they had an even stronger case against the Senate plan.

Under the agreement submitted Tuesday, critics of the map won a near-total victory. The Senate districts will be redrawn in a special session that will start Oct. 19, and the Legislature will have to prove to the court that its map follows the Constitution.

The agreement means, even if all goes as planned, the Legislature will have held three special sessions in 2015 − one to resolve a health-care budget crisis, another to redraw the congressional lines and the October session to approve new Senate districts. The Senate session will also mark the fourth time lawmakers have held a special or extended meeting to correct flawed redistricting plans.

Between changes to the congressional map and the Senate districts, the state’s political landscape could be dramatically altered over the next four months.

The special session to redraw the Senate map will start about two months after a special session to craft new congressional districts, scheduled for Aug. 10 to Aug. 21. Any challenge to the congressional rewrite will be heard by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis beginning Sept. 24. The Supreme Court will ultimately consider that map again.

After the October special session, the Senate redo will go before Leon County Circuit Judge George S. Reynolds III, likely sometime in November.

Lawmakers have spent more than $6.7 million since July 2009 on the redistricting process. And the tab could grow if those fighting the maps win a court order for the Legislature to pay their legal bills, a figure that will end up exceeding $1 million.

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