TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court gave its final blessing to the state's redistricting maps on Friday, giving the Republican-led Legislature a major victory and hitting the reset button on political boundaries for the next decade.
In a unanimous decision, the court validated the redrawn 40-member Senate map and rejected opponents' claims that it violates the new constitutional ban on political gerrymandering.
"We conclude that the opponents have failed to demonstrate that the revised Senate plan as a whole or with respect to any individual district violates Florida's constitutional requirements,'' the court said in its 33-page opinion.
It's unclear if opponents, including the Florida Democratic Party, the NAACP and others, will pursue other legal challenges over the approved maps.
Said Democratic Party of Florida spokeswoman Brannon Jordan in a statement: "While today's ruling raises serious concerns, we will continue our efforts to hold this Republican-led Legislature accountable to the will of the people — something they have consistently ignored throughout this process."
The ruling sets the stage for candidates for the House and Senate to proceed with the districts as drawn. Some candidates used the ruling as their starting gate to launch their campaigns.
The Tampa Bay area will still be divided among seven senators, with more compact districts following county lines more than the current areas.
On the new map, Pinellas County is divided by three districts, where it was previously part of four. The area currently represented by incumbent Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, grew to encompass the entire northern half of the county. The southern half of Pinellas, except for south St. Petersburg, is combined with South Tampa across the bay. South St. Petersburg is included in incumbent Sen. Arthenia Joyner's three-county, bay-hopping district, which covers east Tampa and part of Bradenton. Eastern Hillsborough is still covered by incumbent Sen. Ronda Storms, while northwest Tampa and south-central Pasco County are under incumbent Sen. Jim Norman. A second Pasco-based district also covers Hernando and Sumter counties.
Voter registration numbers and previous voting patterns show that the Senate is expected to elect 23 Republicans and 15 Democrats with two districts considered toss-ups.
The process is not complete, however. The U.S. Department of Justice must determine that the maps do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act requirements and protect minority voting rights in five counties with a history of discrimination: Hillsborough, Monroe, Hendry, Collier and Hardee.
The court's approval averted what state lawyers warned would have been massive candidate confusion because of the June 8 filing deadline.
But the time constraints placed on the court, along with reservations about at least one district in Central Florida, prompted two judges to criticize in writing the state's redistricting process.
In a 17-page opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente recommended the state establish an independent commission to do the work.
"If it is this Court's role to be the guardian of the constitution's intent, I believe that changes must be made to the process to ensure that the purpose of the amendment — to take politics out of the apportionment equation — can be fully realized,'' she wrote.
Justice E.C. Perry, joined by Justice Peggy Quince, dissented, in part singling out a Volusia County district as "drawn with the intent to favor a political party to the detriment of a racial minority community.''
He said that the court's decision to allow this to continue "sends a signal" that it's permissible "to divide and conquer a racial or language minority group before they are able to reach a majority voting bloc."
Florida's Republican-led Legislature bitterly fought the proposed constitutional amendments in 2010 when it tried and failed to put an alternative amendment on the ballot that would have undercut the anti-gerrymandering protections of the Fair Districts amendments.
On Friday, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the Senate redistricting chairman, chastised opponents in a letter to his Senate colleagues.
"Contrary to the fears or perhaps the hopes of the cynics and the critics, Florida's citizens will now go forward to choose from among their neighbors who will represent them in the Senate and House of Representatives,'' Gaetz wrote.
Opponents said they were disappointed with the court's decision but pleased with the change they had provoked.
"Obviously this is an evolutionary process,'' said Dan Gelber, a former Democratic state senator from Miami and general counsel to the Fair Districts Coalition. "These districts are far more compact and more sensible than the ones that were done in previous years."
The Legislature passed House, Senate and congressional redistricting maps in February and sent the legislative maps to the Supreme Court for the required approval. The congressional map has been challenged in Leon County Circuit Court.
On March 9, the final day of the legislative session, the court approved the House map but invalidated the Senate plan as "rife with indicators of improper intent." It singled out eight districts in violation of the new redistricting standards and rejected the district numbering system as favoring incumbents by giving them longer terms.
Gov. Rick Scott called lawmakers back into a 15-day redistricting session in March and the Senate reworked its map.
Times staff writer Darla Cameron contributed to this report.