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Redistricting is creating rifts in the state's non-partisan high court

TALLAHASSEE — As the Florida Supreme Court opens redistricting arguments Wednesday over the Legislature's proposed redistricting maps, recent deliberations of the normally subdued court have signaled an internal feud over how to handle the issue.

Two of the court's conservative justices, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, appear to want to limit the courts review while the court's two liberals, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, appear to want them to dig deeper. In the middle are the swing votes, Justices Fred Lewis, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry.

In the last two weeks, Pariente and Quince have teamed up with two of the moderate judges to demand that legislators turn over their addresses as the non-partisan court is weighing into the once-a-decade partisan battle. Meanwhile, Canady and Polston have also aligned themselves with moderates to block a request from a coalition of voters groups who asked to submit a new version of their proposed map and stopped the Florida Democratic Party from admitting testimony from an expert witness.

"We're in uncharted waters,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the chairman of the House's redistricting committee. The new amendments, he said, are "giving the court the opportunity to look at it in a different way."

The court will hear oral arguments in the case on Wednesday and, if the last two weeks are any indication, the panel could be prepared with some feisty questions.

The Florida Constitution requires the court to review the maps for the House and Senate districts drawn by lawmakers every 10 years as part of the redistricting process but, in the past, the review has been limited. This time, the court must determine how well the maps comply with the anti-gerrymandering Fair District standards approved by voters in 2010.

The Florida Democratic Party, along with the League of Women Voters, The National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause, have asked the court to reject the maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature and order lawmakers to start over. Instead, they said, legislators should create maps more reflective of the voter split in the state — in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by 580,000 voters.

But, unlike 2002, when the court did a very limited review of the maps, the judges this year appear divided over how deep to dig.

Last week, four of the seven justices ordered the Legislature to submit addresses of incumbent lawmakers as part of its record. The ruling by Justices Pariente, Quince, Labarga and Perry concluded that the addresses were necessary in order to evaluate whether the maps were drawn to protect incumbents.

Canady, the chief justice and himself a former Republican legislator, dissented. He argued that reviewing legislative addresses "is inconsistent with the limited nature of the review proceeding we are required to conduct under'' the Florida Constitution. He cited the 2002 review by the court, which described the high court's role as "extremely limited."

The next day, when the coalition of voter groups, led by the League of Women Voters, asked the court to amend its proposed map that it submitted to the court, Labarga and Lewis joined Canady and Polston and the court refused the group's request.

This time, Pariente dissented saying the map was needed to better evaluate the Legislature's plan. She concluded that the court had an obligation to go beyond the review they have conducted before.

The fight is not only over whether the court will go beyond a surface review and where legislators live but the depth of its role. Pariente, who is close friends with Fair Districts chairwoman Ellen Friedin, argues that the new amendments are a game changer.

"The voters of Florida, through the state Constitution, have bestowed upon the Supreme Court of Florida a weighty obligation to determine the validity of the Legislature's joint resolution of legislative apportionment once every 10 years,'' Pariente wrote. "Unlike in decades past, this year, the Court has been called upon to, for the first time, interpret and apply a new constitutional amendment."

On Tuesday, the court divided again; this time over a ruling to reject a request by the Democratic Party to admit expert testimony that cast a negative light on the House and Senate maps. Lewis and Perry joined Canady and Polston to oppose it.

The testimony Democrats attempted to submit was from their legal and statistical expert, Harvard University Professor Stephen Ansolabehere.

He outlined the imbalance of the Senate and House maps by detailing the number of districts in which Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Ansolabehere also alleged that the Senate map unevenly distributes the population, putting too many people into the African-American districts and an average of 6,500 more people into the five Hispanic districts while it underpopulates white, non-Hispanic districts. The expert did not find the same deviations in the House map.

The court has until March 9 to reject or approve the Legislature's maps. If it orders lawmakers to redo their plans, the governor will have five days to call a special two-week session at which time they must take up redistricting again and are prohibited from including anything else on that session's agenda.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at

The Florida Supreme Court

The liberals:

Barbara Pariente, 63, was appointed to the bench in 1997 by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, after serving on the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Pariente is a graduate of George Washington University law school. A 2004 Florida Bar Journal profile lists her as good friends with Miami lawyer Ellen Freidin, head of the Fair Districts effort that brought the amendments to the ballot.

Peggy A. Quince, 63, was appointed to the court by both former Govs. Chiles and Jeb Bush in 1998. She previously served on the Second District Court of Appeal, where she was appointed by Chiles. She is a 1975 graduate of the Catholic University of America school of law. She is a native of Norfolk, Va.

The swings:

R. Fred Lewis, 64, appointed to the court by former Chiles in 1998. He was born in Beckley, W.Va. and is a 1972 graduate of the University of Miami law school.

Jorge Labarga, 60, was appointed to the court in 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist. He grew up in Pahokee. He had previously served on the Fourth District Court of Appeal, where he had been appointed by Crist in 2008. From 1996 until 2008, he on the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit court bench, where he had been appointed by Chiles. He is a graduate of the University of Florida school of law.

James E.C. Perry, 68, was appointed by Crist. He previously served on the 18th Judicial Circuit court bench, appointed by Bush. He is also a former mayor of Longwood. He is a 1972 graduate of Columbia University School of Law and is a native of New Bern, N.C.

The conservatives:

Charles T. Canady, 58, chief justice, is the only one of the justices who has ever been a state legislator. He served in the state House from 1984 to 1990 from Lakeland, first elected as a Democrat and switching to become a Republican in 1986. He is a beneficiary of the 1992 redistricting, when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, narrowly defeating his Democratic opponent. After he left Congress in 2002, Canady served as general counsel to Bush, who then appointed him to the Second District Court of Appeal in 2002. He was named to the Florida Supreme Court in 2008 by Crist. He is a graduate of Yale Law School.

Ricky Polston, 56, the newest justice, was appointed by Crist in 2008. A native the tiny North Florida town of Graceville, Polston is the father of 10 children, including adopting a family of six siblings. He began his career as a certified public accountant and later attended and graduated from Florida State University law school. He served on the First District Court of Appeals from 2001-08, where he was appointed by former Bush.

Redistricting is creating rifts in the state's non-partisan high court 02/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 11:52am]
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