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State Sen. Bill Galvano speaks during a redistricting debate. File photo.

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Judge selects plaintiffs’ map in Senate redistricting case

A Florida circuit judge has approved a new map for the state’s 40 Senate districts that could shift control away from Republicans.

Judge George Reynolds on Wednesday rejected boundaries for the Florida Senate drawn by Sen. Bill Galvano. Instead, Reynolds sided with a map drawn by a coalition of voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, who contend the current districts violate the state constitution.

“We’re confident these are better maps than the previously gerrymandered maps,” said David King, an attorney for the League of Women Voters of Florida. “We think we really got it right.”

Reynolds said in his ruling that it appeared Galvano used a map intended to favor the GOP. Galvano is in line to become Senate President if Republicans remain in control.

That map, Reynolds wrote, was “chosen as part of a process that generated progressively increasing benefits for the Republican Party and incumbents.” He went on to say that although the Legislature “pointed to reliance on staff as a sort of gold standard” for tier-one compliance, the Senate “expressly rejected” the staff’s work product when it amended the proposal during a special session.

Furthermore, Reynolds said Senate leadership disregarded more tier-two compliant, staff drawn alternatives when it created “Senate Map 1,” which was eventually submitted to the court.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate president was reviewing the ruling. In a statement Wednesday, Senate President Designate Joe Negron said “with today’s decision, the maps are set and Senate Victory is ready to focus on November 2016.”‘

“For the last 20 years, voters have elected principled Republicans to serve in the Florida Senate, and I am confident that voters will continue to support strong Republican candidates,” he said. “Florida families, businesses, and our economy have all flourished under Republican-led policies and governing, and I intend to use all of the resources and talents of the GOP to maintain a Republican-led Senate.”

Reynolds said the plaintiffs’ map best complied with a state constitutional amendment that, in part, calls on districts to be compact and adhere to existing city, county and geographic boundaries when possible.

The court-approved map is the most compact, has the same amount of split counties as in the Senate’s proposed map and splits fewer cities than the proposed Senate map. The map also increases the number of Hispanic-performing districts in South Florida.

The map proposed by the Senate created three Hispanic-performing seats; while the voting rights groups’ map creates four Hispanic-performing seats.

Reynolds also used the ruling to ask the state Supreme Court provide additional guidance about the use of political performance data by members of the Legislature after a map is drafted or submitted for consideration.

“This Court suggest more harm is caused by having the Legislature believe they cannot openly and honestly discuss political performance data in evaluating various proposed redistricting maps than would be caused if it was known to the Legislature that such discussions were acceptable, and not, in and of themselves, evidence of partisan intent,” wrote Reynolds.

He continued: “If the Legislature cannot openly discuss political performance, but their plan is evaluated and criticized by opponents based on its political performance then consideration should be given to the thought that they are asked to draw and vote in the dark.”

Reynolds decision marks the second time this year a judge has been asked to decide the state’s political boundaries. In October, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis endorsed a map drawn by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause as the new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts.

The two voting rights organizations and others sued the state over both he congressional and the state Senate boundaries. They said the existing maps violated the state’s “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments aimed at prohibiting gerrymandering.

In a conference call Wednesday, King said he didn’t know what the Senate would gain by appealing Reynolds’ ruling, calling the decision “rock solid.”

Reynolds recommendation now goes to the Florida Supreme Court, which has the final say on a new map

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