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Florida Supreme Court justices raise doubts about arguments against Senate's redrawn map

TALLAHASSEE — Within minutes of Friday's opening arguments on redistricting, Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente lashed back at lawyers for suggesting the court completely rewrite the Legislature's new plan.

Instead, Pariente, who was the author of the 5-2 ruling that rejected the first Senate redistricting map, made it clear that the court intends to limit its review to repairing only districts that potentially remain in violation of the state's new anti-gerrymandering standards.

"If we decided that one district was invalid, nobody would suggest that the whole map should be redrawn," Pariente said. She said that reopening districts that were unchanged, or unchallenged by opponents, would not be "fair to the Senate."

The court rejected the first Senate map March 9 as violating the state Constitution because of eight flawed districts, a numbering system that protected incumbents and a plan "rife with indicators of improper intent.''

The court unanimously approved the House's redistricting map, but legislators were forced to come back for a 15-day extra session to redraw its Senate boundaries.

The court has until May 14 to review the Legislature's second attempt at drawing its redistricting maps and if the court rejects it this time, the justices must propose a fix themselves.

The Republican-led Legislature, faced with its last strike, has hired former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, now a lawyer with the Miami law firm of Case and White, to argue its case. He will be paid $695 an hour. Cantero commended his former colleagues but urged them to give the Legislature deference in the once-a-decade process.

"You can always make a better plan,'' Cantero told the justices, "… but that's not the purpose of this court. The purpose of this court is to determine if our plan is legitimate."

Pariente conducted most of the questioning, just as she did during the hearing into the first round of maps. This time, she made it clear that if the court were to take control of the once-a-decade mapmaking process, it would revise the map selectively.

She zeroed in on the proposed District 8, drawn by Republican senators to split Volusia County, a Democrat-dominated county, into three districts while leaving the adjacent Republican-dominated counties intact.

Democrats claim it was designed to dilute the Democratic vote, protect incumbent Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine in the adjacent District 6, and elect a Republican in the newly opened District 8 seat. The NAACP says it also isolates black voters in Daytona Beach.

"That is a concern of mine,'' Pariente said, adding that she thinks the configuration of these districts is the Democrats' "strongest argument."

Paul Smith, lawyer for the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause, underscored that point and said the newly drawn black-majority district centered in Duval County, District 9, packs Democrats in such a way as to make every other surrounding district "Republican-leaning or very likely Republican held."

But Cantero countered, saying the Senate put an end to the sprawling district it previously proposed and created a black majority district within the confines of Duval County because the court wanted it that way.

"I've never seen a case in my life that somebody gets reversed because this is what a court told us to do,'' he said.

Unlike the first round, when the NAACP commented on the first map but did not ask the court to reject it, the group this time vigorously urged the court to reject the Senate map.

Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice argued that the new Senate map dilutes minority voting strength in District 9 in Duval County. Also, in District 31, a sprawling district in Broward and Palm Beach counties now held by Democrat Chris Smith, the number of black voters who are citizens is estimated at 43 percent.

The result is that a black candidate could lose to a white candidate because of the state's history of "racially polarized voting,'' in which white Democrats won't vote for a black Democrat, Riggs told the court. The Senate maps don't provide enough information about that practice, she said, and absent that, risk violating the Constitution. She disagreed, however, that the NAACP's claims are too late.

"I think this court owes more in fairness to minority voters in the state than it does to the Senate,'' she said after the hearing. "If someone is going to have to be confronted with unfairness, it should not be black voters in Northeast Florida."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

Florida Supreme Court justices raise doubts about arguments against Senate's redrawn map 04/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 20, 2012 11:06pm]
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