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Politics

What's Missing Matters in Redistricting Trial

June 17, 2014 - 6:00pm

As Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis begins his final deliberations on congressional districts drawn by lawmakers in 2012, the gaps in conversations among lawmakers and political consultants might be as important as what's in the record.

Groups challenging the map have painted the words not committed to paper, and documents destroyed by the Legislature, as evidence of improper activity. The state has countered that there's no proof that those gaps contain any damning information.

A coalition of voting-rights groups filed a lawsuit after the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2012, saying the new map ran afoul of the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments that voters approved two years earlier.

One of the key disputes in the challenge hinges on a series of maps drawn by Republican political operatives, and the fact that some of those maps were submitted under someone else's name to a legislative website meant to gather public input.

"For nearly two weeks, plaintiffs presented evidence that various Republican consultants discussed the redistricting process, drew draft maps, and apparently worked to submit maps through the public process," attorneys for the Legislature wrote in a filing last week. "But plaintiffs offered no evidence that those consultants influenced the congressional map."

In a final brief filed Tuesday, though, lawyers for the voting-rights groups essentially asked: Why else would the political consultants spend time drawing those maps?

"Surely they would not have wasted their time on a complicated scheme of obtaining dozens of the Legislatures confidential draft maps, drawing and revising countless maps of their own, and smuggling their maps into the public process unless they were confident their input would receive special attention from the Legislature," the brief said.

The two sides have also clashed over how Lewis should interpret the destruction of redistricting-related documents by lawmakers after the process was over. Legislators have said they were simply following the rules for retaining those documents -- and getting rid of them when the rules allowed.

Lewis has already ruled that he could hold it against the Legislature if incriminating documents were destroyed. But lawyers for the state have argued that the map's opponents haven't offered much in the way of evidence that the trashed papers would have helped their case.

"In the absence of evidence, plaintiffs ask the court to assume that documents discarded in the regular course of legislative business contained incriminating information," the state's final brief said. "The facts do not support an inference that communications were discarded in bad faith to conceal improper intent."

That was the idea in the first place, the voting-rights groups said in Tuesday's filing: Make sure legislators could get rid of any records that might prove that the map unconstitutionally favors incumbents or political parties, then claim that no one can establish that any of the records were important.

"In any case, it is amazing that legislative defendants would have the temerity to fault plaintiffs for failing to identify with sufficient specificity the very documents legislative defendants unilaterally destroyed," the lawyers argued.

In a sense, attorneys fighting the map say Lewis should use common sense when considering the meetings between political consultants and legislative staff in late 2010 and early 2011; the emphasis the attorneys say lawmakers put on the districts covertly submitted by consultants; and the notion that the final maps addressed some of the consultants' concerns.

"The result of these efforts was a highly partisan 2012 congressional plan and an initial Senate map that was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court," they argued. "Not even the most trusting soul could chalk all that up to coincidence."

But that, attorneys for the state argue, doesn't prove the groups' case.

"Here, plaintiffs case is founded on a pyramid of inferences, a series of mental gymnastics that more often than not defy reason and logic and (are) unsupported by the evidence," they wrote.

Lewis is expected to issue a ruling sometime this summer.

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