TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A trial over whether Florida legislators broke the law when drawing new political maps started Monday with an attempt to delve into the often secretive world of the state's top politicians and their consultants.
Groups suing the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature contend GOP leaders ignored a 2010 constitutional amendment that requires them to draw up congressional districts that do not protect incumbents or members of a certain party. Attorneys for the Legislature have denied the allegations. If the court finds the current district unconstitutional it could force legislators to redraw congressional districts.
The entire first day of the scheduled 11-day trial was taken up by repeated questioning of a Republican consultant and friend of former House Speaker Dean Cannon. Attorneys representing the League of Women Voters and other groups tried to show that Marc Reichelderfer was part of a "shadow" process where he gave legislators advice on how to draw congressional districts that favored Republicans.
Evidence obtained from Reichelderfer's computer show that he got copies of proposed redistricting maps days and weeks before the Legislature released them to the public. Reichelderfer exchanged information about these proposed maps with other Republican consultants and he talked about one of the maps with U.S. Rep. Dan Webster.
Reichelderfer insisted that just because information was given to him did not mean he was giving any advice on what legislators should do. One email that was unearthed includes an assertion that one district was "messed up."
"I didn't tell them where to draw lines on a map, I didn't tell them which maps to pick," Reicheldefer said.
But Reichelderfer also had trouble recalling conversations he had with Cannon and others. He insisted he was given the maps ahead of time because it was important to him "professionally" and because he would get asked questions about politicians he represented.
Every 10 years, state legislators use updated population numbers to draw up new legislative and congressional districts. Voters in 2010 passed the "Fair Districts" amendment that, for the first time, imposed new standards on how that job is carried out.
The lawsuit says several districts, including the one held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown in Jacksonville, were drawn in a way to help Republicans because legislators packed her district with black voters who are usually registered as Democrats. Brown's district winds all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando and was described as "serpentine" by one of the coalition lawyers.
Legislative attorneys have countered that the loss of several Republicans during the 2012 elections including U.S. Rep. Allen West is proof that legislators did not draw districts just to help GOP politicians.
Currently there are 16 Republicans and 10 Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation, although Republican Curt Clawson is expected to win election next month to a vacant southwest Florida seat.
The second day of the trial is expected to include testimony from current House Speaker Will Weatherford, who was in charge of House redistricting efforts in 2011 and 2012.