More than two years after lawsuits were first filed a trial is scheduled to open up this week in Tallahassee that challenges the constitutionality of Florida's current congressional map. The trial could last up to 11 days.
Here's a quick run-down to explain what it's about and what's at stake.
WHAT'S HAPPENING: Two different sets of plaintiffs, including a coalition led by the League of Women Voters, have challenged the legality of maps drawn up and passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. The lawsuit asks Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis to declare the congressional maps invalid because they violate a constitutional amendment that requires districts to be drawn in a way so they do not favor any one political party or protect incumbents. The "Fair Districts" amendment was passed by voters in 2010. This lawsuit will answer questions on whether legislators complied with these new standards _ after opposing them initially _ or instead gave them lip service and engaged in a "shadow" process as the plaintiffs allege to draw up districts that favored Republicans.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Ultimately the makeup of the Florida delegation of the U.S. Congress.
Right now there is a 16-10 GOP edge (although one vacant seat is expected to be won in June by Republican Curt Clawson). The judge could decide that the current map is in fact unconstitutional and require that the map be redrawn. The plaintiffs behind the lawsuit argue that no less than 10 existing seats violate the standards: CD 5 held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, CD 10 held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, CD 13 held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, CD 14 held by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, CD 21 held by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, CD 22 held by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, CD 26 held by U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, CD 27 held by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, CD 15 held by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross and CD 25 held by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
It's Brown's district, which winds its way all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando, that may be the one that is most impacted by the litigation.
That's because in the middle of the 2012 session two legislators in charge of redistricting - now Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford met privately with staff and decided at that time to boost the number of African-Americans in Brown's district so that it was a so-called "majority minority" seat instead of having roughly 48 percent African-American voters in the district.
When asked about this in a deposition Weatherford contended that the Senate had made a "compelling" argument to do this because it would help any legal challenges to the maps. The plaintiffs allege that this action wound up taking Democrats from other Central Florida districts and was done to make two other GOP seats safer.
KEY MOMENTS TO WATCH FOR DURING TRIAL: It is expected that during the trial both of Florida's legislative leaders Gaetz and Weatherford will be asked to take the stand. The two men were in charge of the redistricting process in 2012 before they ascended to their current positions. The two men are being forced to testify because the state Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision ruled that legislators and legislative staff are not covered by legislative privilege when it comes to deciding whether or not they violated the "Fair Districts" amendment. Other people who could testify include former House Speaker Dean Cannon as well as legislative staffers, lobbyists and consultants.
THE ALLEN WEST DEFENSE: Another thing to watch for is how many times former U.S. Rep. Allen West's name is mentioned during the trial. It's no secret that some conservatives howled at how the changes proposed by the Florida Legislature wound up affecting West who wound up losing his re-election bid after shifting to a new district. In the past Weatherford and other legislative leaders have insisted they were following the law and that they did not intentionally target West.
But West is already being used by attorneys representing the Legislature as defense exhibit No. 1. House attorney George Meros cited the loss of West - as well as the losses of several other Republicans - as evidence that everything legislators did was on the up and up. The question is how this defense will be viewed by the conservatives and tea party groups that like West.
WHY TALLAHASSEE INSIDERS CARE SO MUCH: While the lawsuit could have reverberations for members of Congress, the litigation also threatens to expose the behind-the-scenes relationships that exist between consultants, lobbyists and Florida politicians. The plaintiffs allege that GOP consultants played a role in helping craft the maps. One of Cannon's top aides - and now working with him at a lobbying firm - sent draft maps to a Republican political consultant. Meros publicly told Judge Lewis in a recent hearing that Kirk Pepper had "breached" his duty to Cannon and that Cannon was furious at him over it.
But there's more than just that: Documents and emails produced in connection with the case have highlighted meetings between legislative staff and GOP consultants and even national GOP officials right after the amendments were passed. What has surfaced so far has also raised questions as to the relationships between legislative leaders such as Cannon and Gaetz and well-known Tallahassee consultants Rich Heffley and Marc Reichelderfer. The Naples Daily News pointed out that Heffley for example was paid $10,000 a month as a redistricting consultant while Gaetz was drawing maps for the Senate.
Meanwhile, for those pushing the lawsuits they have had to answer questions about their own motivations since documents have shown that it was Democratic consultants who helped produce a map that was initially submitted to the judge as an alternative to the map now being challenged. In one colorful passage, a consultant talked about wanting "to scoop as many Jews" out of particular neighborhood in order to bolster the district of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and who is also the chair of the Democratic National Committee.
CONFIDENTIAL AND HUSH-HUSH: One of the other big storylines for the trial is why Republican consultant Pat Bainter and his firm Data Targeting are fighting so hard to keep out of public view hundreds of pages of documents taken from the firm. The groups pushing the lawsuit want to use slightly less than 100 pages as exhibits in the trial. But Bainter's attorneys _ who are being bankrolled by the Republican Party of Florida _ have now gone to an appeals court to fight from making the documents public. The court last Friday said it would keep the material secret while it considers the appeal.
On the very least this means the trial will have to start without these secrets from spilling out, and in the end it's possible that the judge can still use the evidence even if the public never knows what it is.
The battle, however, points out that the attorneys pursuing the case are relying a great deal on material they got from consultants because they were less successful in obtaining a lot of behind-the-scenes material from the Legislature itself.
Let's not forget that it was just winter that legislators acknowledged that some records related to redistricting had been destroyed although they contended was not to thwart the lawsuit.
COST TO TAXPAYERS: And while this drags on taxpayers keep footing the bill.
In the build-up to the trial, the state's taxpayers have spent a lot of money to defend the GOP-controlled Legislature's actions. The Florida Senate has spent at least $2 million, while the House had spent more than $600,000 by last fall. (Still awaiting a more to up to date figure from the House.) You can expect that cost to rise significantly after a trial - and possible appeals depending on which side loses.
WHEN WILL THIS BE DECIDED: Very soon. The trial is not being decided by a jury but the verdict instead will handed down by Lewis. He said at a recent hearing that he plans to make his decision between now and the end of June. That's because Lewis is being switched over to criminal proceedings in July. He said he wants to have this wrapped up before he makes that move.