Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

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 [email protected]

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