Florida Supreme Court surprisingly upholds revision of Senate redistricting map

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The Florida Supreme Court upheld a second draft of new maps for state Senate districts in a splintered decision Friday, clearing one of the remaining barriers for the plan to go into effect for this fall’s elections, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The court’s ruling, which came after the justices voided the first Senate plan approved by the Legislature, was a victory for the Senate’s Republican leadership and removed the prospect that justices would draw the map themselves as part of the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. The court upheld the House map in the earlier decision.

“Pursuant to this Court’s directive, the Legislature adopted a revised Senate apportionment plan that sought to remedy the constitutional infirmities apparent on the face of the invalidated Senate plan,” the court wrote. “In this proceeding, we conclude that the opponents have failed to demonstrate that the revised Senate plan as a whole or with respect to any individual district violates Florida’s constitutional requirements.”

Three justices who had helped form the 5-2 majority scrapping the first Senate plan — Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga — fully supported the decision. Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston, who dissented in the first case, supported the court’s result.

In a partial dissent, Justices James Perry and Peggy Quince, the court’s two black members, sharply criticized the majority for allowing districts in Northeast Florida to stand despite the Legislature’s decision to split a largely black area of Daytona Beach. Opponents of the map argued that the community was split to dilute a heavily Democratic voting bloc between two districts.

“This ruling sends a signal that it is permissible under the provisions of our constitution to divide and conquer a racial or language minority group before they are able to reach a majority voting bloc,” Perry wrote in an opinion joined by Quince.

While agreeing with the court’s decision, Pariente wrote a separate opinion calling for the state to look at other ways of implementing the goals of voters in passing the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments, which were approved in a November 2010 referendum.

Pariente suggested that the 30-day timeframe for Supreme Court review of the plan — originally adopted when there were fewer redistricting standards in the constitution — was too short, and that an independent commission to draw the lines might be the only way to truly remove politics from the redistricting process.

The court struck from the ballot an amendment that would have created an independent commission in 2006, but Pariente said the idea was worth another look.

“If it is this Court‘s role to be the guardian of the constitution‘s intent, I believe that changes must be made to the process to ensure that the purpose of the amendment — to take politics out of the apportionment equation — can be fully realized,” she said.

Lawmakers involved in drawing the lines hailed the ruling.

“We were pleased that the court approved our amended plan, and that elections can go forward,” said Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in an interview.

He also shrugged off Pariente’s suggestion of shifting the timing of the redistricting process, one of the latest in the nation. Critics of the Legislature had voiced similar concerns at a series of public hearings last summer.

“I don’t know if it gets better if it gets longer,” Gaetz said.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said the party held the GOP’s legislative majority “accountable” by challenging both maps and having the first thrown out by the justices.

“While today’s ruling raises serious concerns, we will continue our efforts to hold this Republican-led legislature accountable to the will of the people — something they have consistently ignored throughout this process,” she said.

There are still hurdles for all of the Legislature’s redistricting plans to clear. Portions of maps for the House, Senate and the state’s congressional delegation still have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of racial or language discrimination in five Florida counties.

Even then, the maps can be challenged in court under the VRA, something Cuban lawmakers have suggested is likely because of the lack of a fourth strongly-Hispanic Senate district in Miami-Dade County.

And Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is currently weighing a challenge to the congressional districts under the Fair Districts amendments. Unlike the legislative maps, the congressional plan is not automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court.

A ruling in that case could come as soon as next week.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.