Judge Rejects Senate Call For Outside Map Expert

A Leon County judge on Friday quickly rejected a Florida Senate request to bring in an outside expert to redraw the Senate's 40 districts.

Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III, who turned down the Senate proposal during a 30-minute hearing conducted over the phone, said there wasn't enough time remaining to bring in a "special master" to help draw new district lines.

County supervisors of elections await new lines as they prepare for the 2016 elections, and a court hearing on the Senate map is scheduled for Dec. 14 to Dec. 18. Reynolds held Friday's hearing just a day after the Senate proposed using a special master.

"It appears to me that we just don't have enough time left to engage in any process other than the one we're currently on," Reynolds said. "I think that ship has sailed, and we're on the sea, and we hope to hit land sometime by the end of December."

The Senate and voting-rights organizations including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have until Wednesday to submit proposed Senate maps. A special legislative session collapsed last week when the House and Senate couldn't agree on a plan to redraw Senate districts.

Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice who represents the Senate in redistricting litigation, argued before Reynolds that bringing in a "neutral" outside expert to help the court redraw the map would be the "most reasonable and cost efficient" way to move forward.

"I believe it would give the public the greater confidence that whatever plan is adopted for the state Senate districts for the state of Florida is a neutrally drawn map," Cantero said.

But David King, an attorney for the voting-rights organizations that challenged the current Senate and congressional districts in court, refused to concede that the Senate's three recommended experts were neutral and called the Senate proposal "a diversion."

King added that the request could add as much as six months to the process of getting new districts in place. The qualifying period for candidates to run for the Legislature in 2016 is June 20 to June 24. King also questioned the Senate's concern about cost.

"That's an amazing recognition on behalf of the Legislature, as the clock is about to strike midnight, and after they've spent $11 million defending their unconstitutional maps, with six weeks to the finish line," King said. "We're going to have to have a trial regardless of how we get to that point. But they're not going to save any money with this kind of approach."

The redistricting legal battle, and another over the congressional lines, stem from voter approval in 2010 of the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards.

The Florida Supreme Court this summer ruled that current congressional districts did not comply with the standards, leading lawmakers to hold a special session in August. When the House and Senate were unable to reach agreement on a plan, the map-drawing process went to another Leon County circuit judge, Terry Lewis, who has recommended a congressional map to the Supreme Court.

After the Supreme Court invalidated the current congressional districts, the Legislature and the voting-rights groups reached a settlement that acknowledged current Senate districts also likely would not be upheld. That led to the special session that ended in failure last week, kicking the issue to Reynolds.