In a victory for Democrats, a judge has thrown out a Republican lawsuit that could have placed the Legislature's reapportionment maps in the hands of a three-judge federal panel.
The ruling probably doesn't end the GOP case, filed last month on the opening day of the Legislature's 60-day session. But the order makes it less likely that a federal court will wind up drawing Florida's legislative district lines this year, said state Rep. Peter Rudy Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, the state House reapportionment chairman.
"Home run," Wallace said when told of the ruling Friday afternoon.
In their suit, Republican attorneys contended that Democratic legislative leaders are threatening to drag out the reapportionment process so long that they might not even be finished in time for the November elections. That's unfair to Republican candidates and voters, the GOP contends.
But Chief Judge William Stafford of the U.S. District Court for northern Florida said he sees no reason to take reapportionment away from the Legislature _ at least not yet. With the Legislature still meeting in its regular 60-day session, Republicans haven't proved that a stall is occurring, Stafford ruled.
Stafford also suggested that the Republicans might have big problems in justifying federal intervention into redistricting of the Legislature itself. In the event of a deadlock on state legislative reapportionment, Florida's Constitution calls for the state Supreme Court to draw the lines, Stafford pointed out.
"With respect to state (legislative) reapportionment, it appears that there CANNOT be any impasse," Stafford wrote.
"I'm obviously very pleased," Wallace said. "The court has chosen to respect Florida's constitutional procedures for redistricting, and that is all we can ask."
Republicans made it clear that the case likely will be refiled.
"I'm not really disappointed with the result at this point," said Miguel De Grandy, a Miami state representative who is one of the plaintiffs in the case. "I think it's just a matter of fine-tuning" the case.
De Grandy said the order opens the door for future judicial intervention in reapportionment of the state's congressional districts if the Legislature can't draw proper districts by late spring.
It even leaves an opening for judicial entry into legislative reapportionment, De Grandy noted. "I don't think they're saying absolutely no way," he said. "I think they're saying it's unlikely."
In order to justify federal court involvement in drawing the legislative lines, Republicans probably would have to show that the state's constitutional setup for legislative reapportionment violates the federal Constitution or a federal statute, such as the Voting Rights Act, Stafford ruled.
That could be shown if the state constitutional scheme doesn't leave enough time for the U.S. Justice Department to review the plan before the July candidate filing deadline, De Grandy said.
"The court is saying the issues are very serious and need to be further explored," he said.
Even if the federal courts don't get involved in drawing legislative lines this spring, they likely will review them. Even before the maps have been completed, Republicans have made it clear they are considering lawsuits alleging partisan gerrymandering by Democrats. Republicans also are complaining that Democrats aren't drawing enough minority districts.
A plan drawn by the state Supreme Court also could be subject to challenge. But Democratic legislators said such a plan likely would be almost impervious to challenge on grounds of partisan gerrymandering.
Faced with growing Republican registration and increased demands for minority districts, the Democratic-dominated Legislature has struggled to adopt reapportionment plans this year. Each house has passed its own version of the congressional plan, but neither side has adopted a version of the House or Senate lines.