In a precedent-setting opinion, a divided Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a trial weighing the constitutionality of new state Senate districts can move forward, rejecting the Legislature’s argument that the maps were shielded from further challenges.
The 5-2 ruling, which fell along common ideological lines on the court, allows a coalition of voting-rights groups to continue trying to prove that the Senate maps drawn in 2012 violate the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards added to the Florida Constitution two years earlier.
It also sets the latest stage in a long-running battle over whether lawmakers followed those standards during the once-a-decade redistricting process. The state’s congressional plan faces a separate lawsuit.
“This is an important victory for Floridians who voted overwhelmingly to change the way the Legislature draws redistricting maps,” said Adam Schachter, who represents the voting-rights group, in an email. “We are gratified that the Supreme Court rejected the Legislature’s attempt to shield itself from having to defend its map in court.”
A spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he was “understandably disappointed” with the decision. Gaetz chaired the Senate panel that redrew the maps in 2012.
“The president stands by the maps as well as the Legislature’s redistricting process,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. “The 2012 redistricting process was the most open and transparent in Florida’s history and produced maps which are compliant with Florida’s constitution, facts which the president believes will ultimately be affirmed.”
The opinion does not specifically deal with whether the maps followed the Fair Districts standards. Instead, it revolved around a provision of the constitution saying that a required immediate review of the maps by the Supreme Court “shall be binding upon all the citizens of the state.”
The voting-rights groups said that simply barred another surface review of the maps like the one the justices considered last year, not a more fact-intensive trial that could weigh additional evidence alleging that lawmakers tried to rig the districts for political reasons.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis could, for example, hear testimony or consider exhibits dealing with why lawmakers drew the maps a certain way.
But the Legislature said the constitutional provision barred any additional challenges and asked the Supreme Court to intervene when Lewis denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.
In the ruling Thursday, the court’s five more-liberal justices — who struck down a first draft of the Senate map last year before the Legislature corrected it — sided with the voting-rights groups. Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said agreeing with lawmakers could make it difficult to effectively enforce the Fair Districts standards.
“Simply put, the framers and voters clearly desired more judicial scrutiny of the legislative apportionment plan, not less,” Pariente wrote.
Her opinion was joined by Justices Jorge Labarga, R. Fred Lewis, James E.C. Perry and Peggy Quince.
In a pointed dissent, Justice Charles Canady wrote that the majority’s suggestion that it was following earlier rulings by the court was “fictitious.” Canady, joined by Chief Justice Ricky Polston, said the court’s previous decisions ignoring the binding provision — known as section 16(d) — didn’t excuse its continuing to do so.
“With this decision, we confront the prospect of unending litigation concerning legislative redistricting — a prospect that section 16(d), by its plain terms, undeniably was designed to preclude,” he wrote.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida