[Tallahassee, FL] The Florida Supreme Court struck down a legislative redistricting plan to redraw the boundaries for the state Senate in a landmark ruling Friday, roiling the final day of the 2012 session and ensuring that lawmakers would return to the Capitol at least once.
The 5-2 ruling by the court, which also upheld a new House map, was closely watched because it was the first time the justices had to interpret the meaning of the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards adopted by voters in a 2010 referendum.
Under the constitution, Gov. Rick Scott must call a special session. However, the governor’s legal team was scrambling to interpret a vague clause of the constitution that either requires Scott to issue the call for a special session within five days or have the Legislature return to Tallahassee within five days.
In its ruling, the majority swept aside concerns that its 30-day review of the redistricting plans did not provide enough time to consider the merits of the maps. The errors in the Senate maps were so glaring that justices did not need to gather extensive evidence and hear testimony to make the decision, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority.
“We conclude that the Senate plan is rife with objective indicators of improper intent which, when considered in isolation do not amount to improper intent, but when viewed cumulatively demonstrate a clear pattern,” Pariente wrote.
She said the Senate map included “a number of districts that are clearly less compact than other districts, with visually bizarre and unusual shapes.”
Lawyers for the state had argued that the month-long review was too short for a thorough vetting of the maps and that a trial judge should be allowed to consider any specific claims.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab Opposes Current Redistricting Maps
In a concurring opinion, Justice James Perry brushed those claims aside.
“As recognized by the majority, the citizens of Florida have entrusted us to interpret and apply these constitutional standards,” Perry wrote. “We cannot simply be a rubber stamp for the Legislature‘s interpretation of the constitution.”
But Chief Justice Charles Canady said that put the court in unfamiliar territory and undermined the judiciary’s tradition of deference to the Legislature.
“Based on nothing more than suspicion and surmise, the majority concludes that certain district lines were drawn with improper intent – when there is an evident, rational, permissible basis for the drawing of those lines,” Canady wrote.
The court specifically threw out 8 of the 40 Senate districts. The majority also ordered senators to renumber districts and consider whether Lakeland could be united in one district; the proposed plan had split the city in two.
Voting-rights organizations that were active in the challenge hailed the decision.
“From this day forward our elected officials are on notice that they cannot ignore the Constitution and abuse the public trust by drawing districts to favor themselves,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, part of a coalition of voting groups that opposed the maps.
Republicans in the House also found reason to enjoy the decision.
“We followed the law and respected the will of the voters, and today the House Democrats’ claims and the attacks of outside partisan groups about the House map have been completely and utterly discredited by the Supreme Court of Florida,” said House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R-113/Miami).
Senate Democrats said, essentially, that they told the GOP what would happen – even though a number of Democrats supported the redistricting plan.
House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera
“The Supreme Court saw the same troubling issues of discrimination and favoritism as the Senate Democrats who voted against these maps, and which go against every fiber of the Constitution’s new anti-gerrymandering amendments overwhelmingly passed by the majority of Florida’s voters,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich (D-34/Weston).
Republican leaders tried to frame the redistricting results as positively as possible.
“Four out of five districts were approved. … They had some specific areas they’d like us to look at, and we’re happy to do so and work with the courts,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-26/Merritt Island).
But the eight districts in question are spread throughout the state, raising questions about whether anything less than a far-reaching overhaul would make the map constitutional.
However extensive the review, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz (R-4/Niceville) made it clear he expected the House to hold to an earlier “gentlemen’s agreement” that each chamber be allowed to draw its own maps.
“I’m grateful that the Governor, President and Speaker are working together to schedule an extraordinary session so the Senate can draw districts in accordance with the parameters set by the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Gaetz said in a statement.
By: Brandon Larrabee/The News Service of Florida
Image: House Redistricting Committee Chair Will Weatherford, left, who is the and also Speaker-designate, listens along with Subcommittee members; Rep. Richard Corcoran, center; and Rep. Betty Reed, right; as they view amendment proposals for the House redistricting plan Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (photo: FL House/Mark Foley)