TALLAHASSEE—After a nearly three-year wait, the outline of a battle over Florida’s state Senate maps is taking shape. Subpoenas are being served and a bitter fight has resumed between consultants and the voting groups that accuse them of illegally influencing political maps.
A coalition of plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed a legal challenge to the state Senate maps shortly after they were approved during the 2012 redistricting process. They argue the new lines were drawn for “incumbent and partisan favoritism.” That’s in violation of constitutional amendments passed by voters in 2010 that no longer allow redistricting to be used to favor political parties or protect incumbents.
Plaintiffs take specific issue with 28 of the state’s 40 state Senate seats, while attorneys for the Legislature argue that political consultants from both parties tried to influence the process, but failed.
“Plaintiffs cannot show that the efforts of those individuals corrupted the intent of the Legislature as a whole,” wrote attorneys representing the Legislature, in a response filed with the court last week.
If the court tosses the state Senate lines, it would be seen a blow to the Republican-dominated Legislature. The new maps passed the Senate on a 31-6 vote and in the House on a 61-47 margin. The only Republicans in opposition were a handful of House members from Miami who were angry that the map did not create an a fourth Hispanic-majority seat.
The legal challenge to the state Senate maps has sat largely dormant as a separate lawsuit challenging the congressional maps worked its way through the courts. Trial is set for September in Leon County Court, but it could be delayed as a number of issues remain unresolved.
The nationally watched congressional lawsuit was also filed by the League of Women Voters and led to Tallahassee circuit judge Terry Lewis forcing lawmakers to redraw those maps last summer.
Lewis said the original version favored Republicans, which is at odds with the 2010 anti-gerrymandering amendments. Lewis approved a second set of maps, which now awaits Florida Supreme Court approval. That much-anticipated ruling could come this week.
Political observers involved in the redistricting process have said they believe partisan dealmaking was a much more ingrained part of Senate map-drawing. That means a legal unpacking of the process could set off a dramatic fight involving the Legislature’s upper chamber.
The Florida Supreme Court already rejected a work product created by the Senate. In 2012, justices ruled the first version of new state Senate maps was “constitutionally invalid” because some seats favored incumbents. The court later signed off on a redrawn version of the maps, which are the subject of the current lawsuit.
In late May, attorneys for the Legislature subpoenaed documents from, among others, Democratic pollster Dave Beattie; FairDistricts Now, Inc., the group the spearheaded the constitutional amendments; and NCEC Services, a Washington-based Democratic consulting firm that helped draw maps during the 2012 redistricting process.
In April, plaintiffs sent a round of subpoenas to lawmakers and Republican consultants, including Senate President Andy Gardiner of Orlando; Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is a former Senate president and headed the Senate redistricting committee; and Gainesville-based political consultant Pat Bainter, who also played a starring role in the congressional lawsuit.
Starting last week, a handful of senators started filing objections to the subpoenas on the grounds that they are too broad, seek documents they do not have, or request records that are already public.
Senators formally objecting to the subpoenas include Republicans Gardiner, Gaetz, Alan Hays of Umatilla, and Jack Latvala of Clearwater. Democrat Bill Montford of Tallahassee also filed an objection.
There is also a round of depositions scheduled next week at the Tallahassee offices of law firm GrayRobinson, which represents the Legislature. Those scheduled to be deposed include Chris Clark, who served as Gaetz’s top aide, and John Guthrie, the former staff director for the Senate Reappointment Committee.
Meanwhile, Gardiner has offered each of the 21 Senators who have received subpoenas up to $5,000 in taxpayer funding to hire outside attorneys. Those who have already done so include Republicans Hays, Latvala, and Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, along with Democrats Montford and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.
In a separate but related matter, plaintiffs are in a fight with Gainesville-based GOP political consulting firm Data Targeting over 1,295 documents they say will help them prove that outside political operatives influenced the state Senate maps.
The fight is a continuation from the congressional lawsuit in which the firm was forced to make public more than 500 documents out roughly 1,800 turned over for court review. The firm, which is not a party to either lawsuit, has fought the release because they said the documents include trade secrets and were protected by the First Amendment. Plaintiffs are now after the documents the judge kept private during the congressional lawsuit.
During a June 26 hearing, Tallahassee circuit judge George Reynolds ruled those documents should be made public. He did make exceptions, however, after a handful of political consultants not associated with Data Targeting filed motions arguing some of the documents mention them, and therefore should be kept private.
The group of prominent Republican consultants includes Rich Heffley, Joel Springer, Andrew Wiggins, Jim Rimes, Frank Terraferma and Marc Reichelderfer. They are collectively referred to the “Heffley group” in court documents.
The group says that if any of the Data Targeting documents mentioning them were made public it would have a “chilling effect” on their professional lives.
“I am also very concerned that plaintiffs will use any of the documents … to further any campaign to harass, embarrass, harm or annoy me,” Heffley said in a June 17 affidavit.
Though Reynolds has said at least a portion of the remaining Data Targeting documents should be released, that ruling has been delayed by procedural moves and is likely to be formally appealed.
Plaintiffs say that the remaining Data Targeting documents are crucial to their case.
“They go to the issue of intent and whether or not this process was tainted by the presence of partisan intent,” read a motion penned by Tom Zehnder, an attorney representing some of the plaintiffs.
A mid-June hearing underscores the contentious nature of the redistricting fights, which could make or break political careers and reputations.
An attorney representing Heffley wanted to address the court for the first time, at which point he was unclear if his client was mentioned in the Data Targeting documents.
“It might be our fight, your honor, but we are not sure,” he said.
Reynolds responded ominously.
“Welcome to the battlefield,” he said.
Original article here.