The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in a case that could define how much scrutiny future redistricting efforts will face under the “Fair Districts” amendments, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.
The litigation, filed by the Legislature to stop Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis from moving forward with a trial on maps for state Senate districts, is one of several legal battles that could determine the fallout from the constitutional standards added in a 2010 referendum.
Lawyers for the Legislature say that the Supreme Court’s two redistricting decisions last year are the final word on whether the legislative maps are valid. The first decision struck down the first draft of Senate maps and upheld the House plan, while the second approved a revised Senate proposal.
The Legislature’s lawyers point to a section of the Florida Constitution setting up an automatic review of the legislative districts by the Supreme Court. That section says the justices’ decision is “binding upon all the citizens of the state.”
But a coalition of citizens and voting-rights organizations say barring courts from reviewing more fact-specific claims after the Supreme Court’s quick review of the plans would gut the Fair Districts amendments.
Critics of the maps argue that the case being heard by Lewis will allow them to uncover documents and testimony that could prove whether lawmakers intended to gerrymander districts in defiance of the new standards.
“The important point is that if it doesn’t happen in the circuit court, then that evidence will never be heard by anyone,” said Adam Schachter, a lawyer for the groups challenging the plans.
Justice Barbara Pariente seemed to share those concerns while questioning Raoul Cantero, who represented lawmakers during the hearing, about his contention that the matter was closed.
“What I’m concerned about is it actually frustrates the intent of the voters,” said Pariente, one of three justices who joined the majority in both of the earlier decisions by the court.
But Justice Charles Canady, one of the two conservative justices who dissented in the first redistricting decision, pressed Schachter on the “binding” language in the Constitution.
“I think it’s your position that that doesn’t really mean what it says,” Canady said.
That clause was added after series of lawsuits in the 1960s that left the state’s political boundaries in a state of almost constant flux.
Chief Justice Ricky Polston, the other conservative, said not treating earlier court rulings as final could lead to redistricting cases being filed year after year in an attempt to get the maps struck down.
“This just never ends,” he said.
For his part, Cantero conceded that the Legislature had asked the Supreme Court last year to avoid a sweeping ruling on the plans and to only review the most basic standards, like whether the districts were contiguous, for the automatic review. But he pointed out that the court rejected that idea, leading them to strike down the Senate plan based largely on the shape of the districts and how they compared to the Fair Districts standards.
“You were able to determine, from that circumstantial evidence, the intent,” said Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice.
The 2012 redistricting, the first under the constitutional amendments, has set off a series of legal battles that have continued for more than a year after the Supreme Court approved the second Senate plan. Opponents of the Legislature’s plans have also challenged maps for the state’s 27 congressional districts.
That case, pending at the 1st District Court of Appeal, weighs whether lawmakers can be forced to testify, despite the immunity lawmakers generally receive from having to answer questions in court about their official duties.