State launches 3rd attempt to redraw congressional map

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, still angry at being forced into action by the state’s highest court, launched yet another bid on Monday to reshape the state’s congressional districts.

Legislators returned to the Capitol to kick off a 12-day special session to draw a new map that could make it difficult for several incumbent members of Congress to get re-elected. This is the third time lawmakers have worked on a congressional map since 2012.

The session started on the same day U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown had a setback in her effort to block legislators from making significant changes to her district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando. The Jacksonville Democrat asked last week to intervene in an ongoing federal lawsuit, but the suit’s plaintiffs withdrew it Monday.

That means for now legislators must figure out how to alter the state’s 27 districts in a way that will pass muster with the Florida Supreme Court. The court in July gave legislators 100 days to draw up a new map in order to have it in place before the 2016 elections.

The majority of the court’s justices contended that the Legislature’s previous efforts were “tainted” by partisan influence and violated the “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters in 2010 to stop gerrymandered districts.

Several GOP leaders said they disagreed sharply with the court, while others complained about some of the restrictions that have put in place for the special session.

“Let me be clear: We continue to believe that we drew a constitutional map in 2012 and again in 2014,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. “But the fact remains that this Legislature has been ordered to redraw the map. We have a constitutional responsibility to comply with the court’s order, whether we personally agree with it or not.”

Some legislators chafed at requirements that meetings between senators and staff be recorded. Others contended that their First Amendment rights had been violated because they were cautioned about who they could speak to about the new map. Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, grumbled that legislators were being forced to hand over their authority to a staff member “somewhere in the basement.”

The initial map drawn up by legislative staff and lawyers would lead to a dramatic shift of Florida’s political landscape. If ultimately adopted by legislators, several incumbent members of Congress — including U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster — could find it hard to hold on to their current seats. The new map could also help resurrect the political career of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who will likely mount a run for a reconfigured House seat in Pinellas County.

Brown, upset that the court told legislators to shift her district to an east-west configuration, complained last week that African-Americans would lose political representation if the new map was adopted. Brown and other black leaders in central Florida had asked last week to intervene in an ongoing federal lawsuit. The lawsuit challenged the current shape of her district on the grounds that it creates “racial packing” by unnecessarily putting a large number of African-American voters together in a district. Brown and others opposed that lawsuit and had hoped to intervene to defeat it.

But the plaintiffs withdrew the suit Monday. Mark Herron, an attorney working on the challenge, said the action means Brown’s motion is now moot. Herron said the lawsuit was being withdrawn because “the courts in the state of Florida have granted the relief that we are seeking.”

A spokesman for Brown did not say whether she would pursue additional legal action.

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