The war over the state’s political boundaries entered its next stage Thursday, as final passage of the Legislature’s redistricting plan for the state’s congressional delegation was met with a lawsuit backed by the Florida Democratic Party and the threat of more to come.
Within moments of the Senate approving the plan on a bipartisan, 32-5 margin, the Democratic Party announced that several voters working with the party had filed a lawsuit challenging the maps on the grounds that they violate the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments approved by voters last fall.
A coalition of voting-rights groups responded that it would follow suit as soon as Gov. Rick Scott officially signed the plans into law, as expected. Both lawsuits either were or will be filed in Leon County Circuit Court.
The maps for the state House and Senate, which passed the upper chamber on a 31-7 vote, will automatically go to the Florida Supreme Court after Attorney General Pam Bondi reviews them; the hearings on those maps are expected to mark another front in the legal battle. Democrats said they planned to be involved in the Supreme Court review as well.
The filing of lawsuits against the maps was viewed as a near-certainty from the beginning of the once-a-decade redistricting process; perhaps the only surprise was how quickly the first lawsuit was filed. FDP Executive Director Scott Arceneaux said the party moved as quickly as it did on the assumption that Scott would sign the maps within hours.
“Now the courts have to step in to implement the will of the people — a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish,” Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shrugged off the challenge as an expected, and likely unsuccessful, attempt to derail the process.
“The sad part is, now the taxpayers of Florida have to be dragged into court by special-interest groups who always intended to be dissatisfied,” Gaetz told reporters after the Senate vote.
Gaetz said a round of redistricting lawsuits in 2002 cost the state $10 million.
The Central Florida district represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster and the South Florida seat held by Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart are among those targeted by critics of the map. Arceneaux said Webster’s district was one that the party would highlight.
A lawsuit soon to be filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Hispanic advocacy group The National Council of La Raza, Common Cause Florida and four voters swiped at both districts.
“Upon information and belief, Webster and Diaz-Balart took affirmative steps to influence members of the Legislature and its staff to ‘improve’ the composition of their new districts to make them more favorable,” the pending lawsuit says.
Asked about that charge, Gaetz replied: “Neither Congressman Diaz-Balart nor Congressman Webster have spoken to me about these maps.”
Gaetz also noted that the maps ruffled the feathers of a number of Republican members of congress and candidates. U.S. Reps. John Mica and Sandy Adams are headed to a primary showdown, while Congressmen Dan Rooney and Allen West joined former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner in a delicate dance to make sure each of the three had a seat to run for.
Arceneaux said that defense was “laughable,” given the overall advantage Republicans are expected to have in the congressional map.
“This map clearly is meant to protect Republicans. … All they’re doing is going from one district to another,” he said.
In all, the Democrats’ suit lists seven districts it says violates the new standards.
The lawsuits flew after a relatively anticlimactic vote in the Senate to approve the measures.
Seven of the 12 Senate Democrats joined Republicans in voting for both maps; Republican Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland broke with the GOP to vote against both maps. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also voted against the legislative map.
A new vote could be on the horizon for the chamber — if the courts decide to kick one or more of them back to the Legislature, Senate President Mike Haridopolos suggested lawmakers would try to fix the maps instead of letting the courts draw them.
“If there are some minor adjustments, we need to come here quickly, so that those people who are seeking office can make the proper adjustments,” he said.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida