By BILL KACZOR
The Republican-led Legislature's do-over of the state Senate redistricting map won approval Friday from the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected arguments that the map violates new anti-gerrymandering standards.
Justice Barbara Pariente, though, wrote a concurring opinion saying the high court faced time limits and other issues that prevented the Fair Districts standards from "being fully effectuated." She called for constitutional changes to lift those barriers, including the creation of an independent apportionment commission to draw maps in the future.
The seven justices were unanimous on most points. The court's two black justices, though, dissented on splitting Daytona Beach's historically African-American community.
The opinion turned aside challenges from the Florida Democratic Party, a coalition of groups that backed the Fair Districts standards - the League of Women Voters of Florida, the National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause - as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"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," the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.
The ruling leaves a number of Senate districts that plainly violate the Fair Districts standards, said state League of Women Voters President Deirdre Macnab, but she added the new requirements have had an overwhelmingly positive effect.
Voters in 2010 approved two Fair Districts amendments, one each for legislative and congressional redistricting, through a citizen initiative.
"Because of the amendments we have a process which has resulted in the first time more districts being competitive, more cities and counties remaining whole and more districts being geographically compact," Macnab said.
Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican in line to become the chamber's president in November, said he's still convinced the original Senate map complied with Fair Districts, but he added "We are grateful for the court's clear direction, which guided the Legislature in making changes."
Gaetz also predicted further legal action may lie ahead.
"But contrary to the fears, or perhaps the hopes, of the cynics and the critics, Florida's citizens will now go forward to choose from among their neighbors who will represent them," Gaetz said.
Macnab and Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan confirmed their organizations will be considering other options.
"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," Jordan said.
While the Supreme Court conducted what's known as a "facial" review, more detailed challenges could be filed at the trial court level, although it's unlikely they'd be resolved in time for this year's elections. Qualifying for office opens on June 4.
A separate challenge by Democrats and the coalition against the redistricting map for Florida's 27 congressional seats is awaiting a ruling by a Tallahassee trial judge.
The U.S. Justice Department also has yet to approve all three maps under the federal Voting Rights Act due to past racial discrimination in five Florida counties.
The Supreme Court on March 9 unanimously affirmed the 120-district state House map but ruled 5-2 that the 40-seat Senate plan violated the Fair Districts standards in part by intentionally favoring incumbents and the GOP. It also found violations of requirements that districts be compact and follow geographic and political boundaries whenever feasible and faulted the Senate for failing to do functional analyses of whether the map protected minority voting rights.
Lawmakers redrew the Senate map during a special redistricting session called by Gov. Rick Scott. If the justices again found problems with the plan they could have redrawn it themselves.
The high court rejected arguments lawmakers should have redrawn the entire Senate map, noting their March ruling singled out only eight districts. It also struck down the Senate's district renumbering scheme, ordered lawmakers to do the functional analyses and asked that they take another look a decision to split Lakeland. The new map kept Lakeland whole and made the changes the justices ordered.
In her concurring opinion, Pariente, who wrote the original ruling, urged lawmakers, the 2018 Constitution Revision Commission or citizens through the initiative process to propose constitutional changes. Pariente wrote that a pre-existing constitutional limit of 30 days for each Supreme Court review is not enough time for the more complex Fair Districts standards.
It's too much to expect a political body such as the Legislature to take a nonpartisan approach, Pariente wrote. She noted that creating an independent commission was proposed to the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission but it declined to put to put the measure on the ballot.
Pariente also wrote that having to prove favoritism to incumbents or political parties was intentional to find a violation may undercut the goal of Fair Districts.
Justice James Perry wrote in his partial dissent that splitting Daytona Beach's heavily Democratic black community was the result of "systematic choices by the Legislature to favor the Republican Party." Justice Peggy Quince concurred.
Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston concurred only in the plurality opinion's results. They dissented from the first opinion, writing the Supreme Court should show deference to the Legislature.
On the Net:
Senate Redistricting: http://www.flsenate.gov/session/redistricting/
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