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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Court rejects Senate's redistricting map with 5-2 vote, validates House plan

9

March

 

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Left to Right: Senators Don Gaetz, R- Niceville, incoming Senate President, Joe Negron, R- Stuart, and Senate President, Mike Haridopolos, R- Merritt Island, huddle at the rostrum, Friday as members found out the Florida Supreme Court ordered that chamber to redraw its political maps to more accurately adhere to the anti-gerrymandering directive of voters but validated the House map that pits 38 incumbents against each other.    [Scott Keeler | Times] 

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday tossed out the proposed state Senate legislative redistricting maps, approved the House's forcing lawmakers to start over in a special session later this month.

In an extraordinarily thorough 234-page opinion, the court voted 7-0 to validate the House maps, and rejected the Senate maps 5-2. The court defined the terms of the new constitutional standards and called out the Senate for being the worst violator, ruling eight districts as invalid.

"We conclude that the challengers have demonstrated that the Senate plan, but not the House plan, violates the constitutional requirements. We therefore declare the Senate plan constitutionally invalid and the House plan constitutionally valid,’’ the court wrote for the majority in an opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente.

Concurring opinions were  written by Justices Fred Lewis, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston disagreed with the ruling to reject the Senate map and dissented.

The court said the new Fair Districts amendments imposed upon the court "a weighty obligation to measure the Legislature‘s Joint Resolution with a very specific constitutional yardstick." It noted that before the reforms were passed, "there is no question that the House and Senate plans would have passed constitutional muster and both would have been validated by this Court."

The new rules establish landmark standards that legislators must follow when they do the once-a-decade redistricting process. They prohibit lawmakers from intentionally protecting incumbents and political parties; require them to preserve minority voting rights; and, order them to draw compact districts where possible.

But the new Fair Districts standards didn't offer the court any guidance as to how to define those concepts, and the court was clearly divided over how far it should go into settling the factual disputes over those elements.

Attorneys for the Legislature and Attorney General Pam Bondi argued that the court should attempt to determine if the maps were compliant with the new constitutional standards but instead await challenges brought in trial courts. But the court concuded that "would be an abdication of this Court‘s responsibility under the Florida Constitution" and could "create uncertainty for voters" and candidates who must qualify to run for their seats by June 4.

The Legislature’s maps had been challenged by the Florida Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida. They argued the new districts violate the amendments passed in 2010 because they were drawn with the intent to protect the Republican majorities of the House and Senate and unfairly pack minorities into districts on the pretense of protecting minority voting strength.

During oral arguments, Pariente led the questioning of lawyers for both sides seeking input on how to define the provisions of the amendments.

"The new constitutional provisions seek to level the playing field in how legislative districts are drawn,'' Pariente wrote in the majority ruling. "These mandates are specific, and the citizens of this state have entrusted to the Supreme Court of Florida the constitutional obligation to interpret the constitution and ensure that legislative apportionment plans are drawn in accordance with the constitutional imperatives."

But Canady was not persuaded and Polston agreed.

Among the issues the court addressed was how lawmakers must treat the requiements that districts be drawn compactly, how reducing the number of minorities in a minority-held House district go too far and unconstitutionally abridge their rights compactness.

The governor must now call a special session devoted exclusively to redistricting within five days.

Each chamber drew its own map as part of a handshake agreement between the Senate and the House. But both chambers will need to return to Tallahassee to approve redrawn Senate maps.

The House celebrated that its maps had been approved Friday as House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford read aloud the first page that declared the House plan constitutional and members roared into a standing ovation.

"There was one minor detail I forgot to mention and that was that the vote was also unanimous," he said, referring only the ruling on the House map. The other minor detail he didn't mention: They threw out the Senate plan.

"This is a historic moment," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

The Senate continued working in the final day of the legislative session and did not formally acknowledge the decision.

[Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 11:27am]

    

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