TALLAHASSEE — The war over redrawing Florida's political maps returned to federal court Thursday as five Monroe County voters, along with three advocacy groups, sued Gov. Rick Scott to compel him to follow a federal law requiring the Justice Department review of the new redistricting language approved by voters in November.
The law requires the state to get federal "preclearance" for any changes that affect the voting rights of citizens in five Florida counties that had a history of racial discrimination.
The lawsuit argues the changes became final Nov. 16, when the State Canvassing Board certified that Amendments 5 and 6 had been approved by voters. The amendments imposed new criteria for legislators to follow when redrawing political maps for congressional and legislative districts.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist quietly sought the preclearance Dec. 10 at the request of the amendment backers. Gov. Rick Scott quietly withdrew the request Jan. 4, at the request of amendment opponents, including some legislative leaders.
Now five voters from Monroe County, one of the affected counties, are asking a three-judge panel from the federal court in Miami to order the governor to act. They say his failure to do so "will cause will cause uncertainty, delay and confusion" as legislators begin the redistricting process this year.
"The absence of preclearance for Amendments 5 and 6 jeopardizes the application of the new standards and renders the ongoing redistricting process legally uncertain, harming voters who intend to participate meaningfully in that process," the complaint says.
The lawsuit was filed by Fair Districts Now, the left-leaning political committee formed to pass the amendments. Joining the Monroe County residents: the Florida League of Women Voters, the NAACP of Florida and the Hispanic civic organization Democracia-Ahora (Democracy Now).
Scott's attorney is reviewing the lawsuit, said Brian Hughes, the governor's deputy communications director, in a statement. But, he said, "Gov. Scott is not delaying the process. Since the Legislature is months away from the start of the redistricting planning, it is premature for anything except a thoughtful consideration of the issue."
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville and chairman of the Senate's redistricting committee, called the lawsuit a sideshow and said the Legislature will seek federal review once maps are drawn.
"The preclearance that really matters is the preclearance of a redistricting plan that would occur following the district maps," he said. "That's the real game, the real prize, the real mission."
Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, all redistricting maps and voting changes that affect the five Florida counties with a history of racial discrimination must be submitted to the Justice Department. Monroe, Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry and Collier are the designated counties subject to the preclearance requirements in Section 5 of the act.
Also at play is a lawsuit brought by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, alleging that Amendment 6 is unconstitutional. The Florida House has joined in the lawsuit.
Gaetz said he expects the Obama administration to approve the language "in a heartbeat."
"Our operating assumption in the Senate is that Amendments 5 and 6 are part of the Constitution and part of the redistricting process until and unless a court somewhere tells us differently," he said.
The lawsuit also noted that Kurt Browning, Scott's appointee to head the Secretary of State's Office, which oversees state elections laws, has a potential conflict. Browning served as chairman of the "Protect Your Vote" effort, a political committee formed to defeat the amendments.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.