Federal judge approves delay until Jan. 16 for Sarasota County to file answer in redistricting lawsuit

Holiday season delayed a step necessary to the hiring of outside counsel for the county, motion says

This is the federal courthouse in Tampa. Image from the court website

Sarasota County has won an extension for filing its response to the federal lawsuit filed over the new County Commission district lines approved on Nov. 19, 2019The Sarasota News Leader learned this week.

On Dec. 29, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge William F. Jung of Tampa agreed to allow the county to wait until Jan. 16 to respond in the class action case, which was filed on Dec. 12, 2019.

In a Dec. 27, 2019 motion seeking the extension, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce pointed out that the county “accepted service” of the complaint on Dec. 16, 2019, which meant a response was due by Jan. 6.

“Good cause exists for a time extension to file a response to the complaint,” Pearce continued, noting that the county anticipated hiring the GrayRobinson law firm “to represent all defendants in this matter.”

Along with the county, the complaint names Commissioners Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Michael Moran as individuals. They were the three board members who approved the new district lines during the Nov. 19, 2019 vote.

However, Pearce added, the hiring of GrayRobinson “cannot be accomplished without obtaining the [clients’] waiver of conflict as to unrelated matters.”

Because of the holiday season,” he pointed out, the next County Commission meeting will be held on Jan. 14, “which is the earliest time to obtain their waiver.”

The American Bar Association says on its website, “Loyalty and independent judgment are essential elements in the lawyer’s relationship to a client. Concurrent conflicts of interest can arise from the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or from the lawyer’s own interests.”

It adds, “Resolution of a conflict of interest problem under [Rule 1.7] requires the lawyer to: 1) clearly identify the client or clients; 2) determine whether a conflict of interest exists; 3) decide whether the representation may be undertaken despite the existence of a conflict, i.e., whether the conflict is consentable; and 4) if so, consult with the clients affected … and obtain their informed consent, confirmed in writing.”

Pearce then explained in his motion that he had communicated with the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, who had agreed to the time extension “in exchange for holding a meeting on January 15, 2020, for the purpose of preparing a case management report.”

Federal Judge William F. Jung. Image from the ballotpedia.org website

The website of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida explains that a case management report includes a date by which the parties have agreed to “disclosures of core information … and a detailed description of the information scheduled for disclosure.” The report also must contain a “discovery plan which shall include a detailed description of the discovery each party intends to pursue for admission [in the case],” as well as the date for completion of discovery.

Finally, the report should include the date “by which the parties will be ready for a final pretrial conference and subsequent trail.”

Earlier, the redistricting complaint was designated a “Track Two” case, which means a trial would be involved. The U.S. District Court website also notes, “It is the goal of the court that a trial will be conducted in all Track Two cases within two years after the filing of the complaint, and that most such cases will be tried within one year after the filing of the complaint.”

In the Sarasota County situation, with three commission seats up for election this year, the plaintiffs have asked the court to rule that the new district lines cannot be used. Instead, the complaint argues that the County Commission should wait until after the 2020 Census results have been published before drawing new lines.

The lawsuit also seeks an extension of the deadline for candidate filing for the 2020 County Commission elections.

Background on the complaint

Lawrence A. Kellogg. Image from his law firm’s website

The lead attorney for the three plaintiffs is Lawrence A. Kellogg of the Miami firm Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman LLP. Steven D. Hutton of Hutton & Dominko in Sarasota and Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., a former federal prosecutor who is the developer of Palmer Ranch in Sarasota, are co-counsel.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler has remained steadfastly opposed to redistricting in advance of the receipt of the 2020 Census results, he has said. Then-board Chair Charles Hines opposed the map Commissioners Detert, Maio and Moran adopted in November 2019, because it moved the traditionally African American community of Newtown from District 1 into District 2.

During board meetings prior to the vote, Newtown residents, the leader of the Sarasota County chapter of the NAACP and representatives of other organizations urged the commissioners not to disenfranchise Newtown voters in the 2020 election for the District 1 seat.

Because county voters in November 2018 approved the implementation of a Single-Member Districts County Charter amendment, citizens will be able to cast ballots only for a candidate for the seat representing the district in which they live and the candidate live.

Republican Commissioner Moran — now the County Commission chair — won the District 1 seat in November 2016; that seat is open in the 2020 election.

One of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit is former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, who had filed to run as a Democrat for the District 1 seat. The redrawing of district lines made him ineligible for that campaign — an issue the Dec. 12, 2019 complaint also addresses.

The other two plaintiffs are Newtown residents Mary Mack and Michael White.

This is a closeup of Newtown in Map 4.1. which the County Commission did adopt on Nov. 19, 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The complaint says that the formal resolution adopted by the County Commission on the 3-2 vote “violates the United States Constitution and the Federal Voting Rights Act. This Action seeks to rectify the County Commissioners’ unconstitutional and illegal race-based redistricting, and restore Plaintiffs’, and similarly situated Newtown residents’, right to vote in the 2020 Sarasota County election.”

The complaint explains that the action “arises under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act …”