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Parties tussle over districts

Legislators take their clash over a new map of state House and Senate districts to the Florida Supreme Court today.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2002


Legislators take their clash over a new map of state House and Senate districts to the Florida Supreme Court today.

TALLAHASSEE -- The parade of lawyers before the Florida Supreme Court today calls to mind another time, another election: That election. One legal argument comes straight from Bush vs. Gore, which settled the race for the White House in 2000.

But today's clash is not about chad, voter intent or statewide recounts. It's about the Legislature's new map of state House and Senate districts. Republicans and Democrats are locked in legal combat, and once again the Florida Supreme Court is the arbiter.

It seems everyone, from Gov. Jeb Bush to the city of Temple Terrace, has an opinion about the two maps, and today is their moment before the court, which has two weeks to accept or reject the first redistricting plan ever passed by a Republican Legislature in Florida.

At stake is the partisan makeup of 160 districts held by people who spend $50-billion a year in public money and set statewide policy on education, the environment and other issues.

The redistricting plans are intended to strengthen Republican control of the Capitol for years. If the justices reject the plans, lawmakers will be forced to do it all over again, heightening tensions between two branches of government that have clashed repeatedly, most memorably over the 2000 election.

A special session on redistricting would delay preparations for the closely watched fall elections, the first major test of touch screen voting machines. Ballots can't be done until the district lines are settled.

The Legislature argues that under the separation of powers doctrine, courts must presume that an act of the Legislature is valid.

"The Senate plan complies with the Florida and U.S. constitutions and meets all of the requirements of law and should be upheld," says Jim Scott, a former Senate president representing the Senate. "It's a matter for the Legislature to decide."

The case features encore appearances by two lawyers who gained fame during the 2000 election debacle. Barry Richard, who represented George W. Bush, is one of the Senate's lawyers, and Dexter Douglass, a member of Al Gore's legal team, is objecting to maps on behalf of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, which want the court to substitute its plans for the Legislature's.

"We would like to see them throw the plans back to the Legislature and ask them to identify a set of standards, and adhere to those standards when they redraw the districts," said Ben Wilcox, director of Common Cause Florida. "We would like to see plans that benefit the voters, not the politicians."

Applying similar logic, Attorney General Bob Butterworth said the plans should be rejected because lawmakers did not adopt "objective standards" when they began the process last summer.

Butterworth even cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that overturned the Florida Supreme Court's decision ordering a recount, sealing George W. Bush's election. Quoting from Bush vs. Gore, which dealt with standards for counting votes, Butterworth wrote: "The problem inheres in the absence of specific standards to ensure its equal application."

Butterworth, a Democrat, says the lack of standards resulted in "extremely contorted" districts that break up communities.

His complaint prompted an unusual counterattack by Bush, who noted that Butterworth did not allege any violation of state law or the Constitution. They labeled Butterworth's legal reasoning "offensive," "radical" and "misguided."

Bush faulted Butterworth for trying to embroil the court in what is "inherently political and beyond any court's institutional competence. ... The drawing of every line requires political choices."

Six of the seven justices were appointed by Democratic governors. One, Barbara Pariente, recused herself from the case because her stepson works for one of the law firms involved. The court replaced her with Judge William Van Nortwick Jr. of the First District Court of Appeal, who was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat.

Opponents of the maps complain their political voices have been muted because communities were chopped up and parceled out among various districts.

Marion County, represented by former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes, protested it is now divided among four Senate districts.

A Democratic group featuring Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Bishop Victor Curry of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, argues that districts were gerrymandered for partisan advantage and that some minority voting power has been diluted in three House districts.

Temple Terrace, Hillsborough County's smallest city, has enough residents (20,900) for only one-sixth of a House seat, and Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans. Yet it is split between two House districts (59 and 60) and two Senate seats (12 and 18).

Those districts, the city argues, "completely disregard the established political subdivision boundaries of Temple Terrace, thereby threatening its citizens with political invisibility."

It's about maximizing Republican strength. District 60 is one of those marginal seats held by a Democrat, first-term Rep. Sara Romeo of Lutz, who won by 336 votes in 2000.

The newly drawn District 60 is a safer Republican district: George W. Bush got 52 percent of the vote in the new district in 2000, compared with 46 percent in the territory Romeo now represents. District 59, represented by Tampa Democrat Arthenia Joyner, remains a minority access seat.

Others attacking the maps in court are Lee and Franklin counties, the cities of Ocala, Bonita Springs and Pembroke Pines and Democratic Reps. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, Tim Ryan of Dania Beach and Dwight Stansel of Wellborn.

Joining Bush, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay in supporting the maps are three former House speakers, Ralph Haben, John Thrasher and T.K. Wetherell, all of whom now lobby the Legislature.

Like Bush, they said Butterworth's move to invalidate the map is "an assault on the separation of powers" among the three branches of government. "The power to redistrict resides in the Florida Legislature," they argued.

-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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