TALLAHASSEE — A lawsuit filed Tuesday contends that Florida lawmakers ignored new rules intended to prevent political parties and incumbents from influencing the once-a-decade process of redistricting.
Several individuals and groups including the League of Women Voters maintain that state Senate districts in key parts of the state — including South Florida, the Tampa Bay region and Central Florida — violate standards that were approved by voters.
“We feel very strongly that the voters in Florida put these very specific rules in place and the Legislature simply did not follow them,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League.
The lawsuit is not expected to have any immediate impact on the coming November elections. A similar legal challenge to a new map for Congress is not scheduled to go to trial until early next year.
Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who directed the drawing of the new Senate districts, was dismissive of the challenge, saying it echoed past complaints. Craig Meyer, chief of staff for the current Senate president, said the lawsuit was not a surprise.
Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures. But two years ago voters approved the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments, which state that legislators can’t draw districts intended to protect incumbents or members of a certain political party.
The Florida Supreme Court used the new standards to strike down a new state Senate map back in early March. So legislators returned for a special session and adopted a second map. The Supreme Court then signed off on the map, but even in that ruling the two black justices on the court dissented over a plan to split Daytona Beach’s historically African-American community.
Gerald Greenberg, an attorney working on the lawsuit, said the high court conducted a limited review that had to be finished within 30 days. He said a full review would show that legislators violated the criteria in the new standards.
Gaetz said in a statement that “today’s filing is nothing more than summer re-runs of the same complaints that were rejected by the Florida Supreme Court.”
The lawsuit filed in Leon County circuit court by the League, the National Council of La Raza, and Common Cause Florida said lawmakers did not follow the Fair Districts standards for 14 districts, including the two districts that split Daytona Beach. The lawsuit asserts the map was drawn in a way to aid Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who is running for state Senate.
Additionally, the lawsuit questions why lawmakers joined Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in one state Senate district, and the lawsuit maintains the GOP-controlled Legislature drew new districts in a way to ensure that a former Bradenton lawmaker and a Sebring legislator were not living in the same district.
The lawsuit also asserts that legislators disregarded political and geographic boundaries to draw a friendly district for Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and that lawmakers packed Democrats in districts in both Miami and Tampa.
The latest legal challenge came the same day that attorneys for the Legislature and the same groups were in court arguing over whether legislators and legislative employees can be interviewed for a separate lawsuit challenging a congressional map.
George Meros, an attorney hired by the Florida House, argued that legislators and legislative employees have a long-standing privilege held up by other courts that protects them from having to testify about legislative business. He said forcing lawmakers to answer questions would put a “bull’s-eye” on them and would have a “chilling effect” on legislators wishing to handle redistricting in the future.
Michael DeSanctis, who represents the groups in the lawsuit, said that Meros’ comments “border on the disingenuous.”
“We’re not talking about going after them criminally or investigating their conduct,” DeSanctis said.