Florida Supreme Court throws out Senate redistricting plan

Aaron Deslatte[ck_comma] Tallahassee Bureau Chief | South Florida Sun-Sentinel | 03/09/2012

TALLAHASSEE

On the last day of a once-a-decade redistricting legislative session, the Florida Supreme Court officially ordered overtime Friday by ruling that the re-drawn state Senate map failed to follow new anti-gerrymandering standards.

The high court decided in a 5-2 ruling that 8 of the Senate's 40 re-drawn districts violated the new Fair Districts standards, a move that will force lawmakers to return to work — possibly within days — to take another crack at the maps. The court also decided unanimously that the House maps did comply with the new Fair Districts standards.

The ruling is expected to trigger changes to Senate districts in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

The Republican-controlled Senate's redistricting plan was "obvious self-dealing," said Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Siegel, who praised the Supreme Court ruling.

"There was a political agenda involved [and] the constitution says specifically you can't do that," Siegel said.

With a June candidate qualifying deadline fast approaching, the uncertainty created by the Supreme Court ruling has an immediate effect on local campaigns, Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Sid Dinerstein said.

"It's a timing issue," Dinerstein said. "There's some work to be done."

The defective Senate districts stretch from the Panhandle to Fort Myers, and Jacksonville to Orlando — and failed to measure up in the high court's review for different reasons, including protecting incumbents, and failing compactness or geographic standards.

In South Florida, the court ruled that two districts currently held by two Fort Lauderdale lawmakers, Democrat Chris Smith and Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff, run afoul of the new standards because they were based on the last round of maps drawn in 2002 before the Fair Districts standards were enacted.

The court said the two districts — Districts 29 and 34, which run parallel to each other down a strip of coast from Jupiter to Dania Beach — "are clearly not compact" and the coastal District 29 "is indicative of intent to favor an incumbent and a political party" by making Bogdanoff's district safer for a Republican.

The many tweaks and changes to local boundaries during the Legislator's redistricting process were "just too difficult to keep up with," Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus said. Politics needs to be put to the side when legislators respond to the court ruling, she said.

"You just need to follow what the law says and not have any party issues going on," said Marcus, a Republican.

Palm Beach County should have more concentrated Senate representation, not just end up lumped in with multiple districts crisscrossing the county, Siegel said.

"It had to go," Siegel said about the redistricting plan.

The Supreme Court will likely have to provide more direction about the changes needed, but don't expect dramatic changes, Dinerstein said.

"There's tinkering to be done, but I don't think it's going back to zero," Dinerstein said.

The 234-page ruling said the Legislature's new lines for 120 House districts passed the constitutional tests laid down by the anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters last year. But the 40 Senate districts will have to be redrawn to the court's liking before candidate qualifying begins in early June.

The decision is precedent-setting, because the justices ruled that the Fair Districts amendments imposing new constitutional standards on redistricting also require more than a cursory review by the court of whether lawmakers followed them.

"The new requirements dramatically alter the landscape with respect to redistricting by prohibiting practices that have been acceptable in the past, such as crafting a plan or district with the intent to favor a political party or an incumbent," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority.

"By virtue of these additional constitutional requirements, the parameters of the Legislature's responsibilities under the Florida Constitution, and therefore this Court's scope of review, have plainly increased, requiring a commensurately more expanded judicial analysis of legislative compliance."

Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston dissented with the court's decision to invalidate the Senate map.

The court said the eight Senate districts didn't comply fully with the new standards, because they packed in too many minorities, didn't adequately follow geographic boundaries or weren't compact enough.

"The Legislature should remedy the constitutional problems with respect to these districts, redrawing these districts and any affected districts in accordance with the standards as defined by this Court," Pariente wrote, "and should conduct the appropriate functional analysis to ensure compliance with the Florida minority voting protection provision as well as the tier-two standards of equal population, compactness, and utilization of existing political and geographical boundaries."

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the defects in the maps could have been avoided.

"The ruling ... underlined all of the warnings which went unheeded during the redistricting committee hearings and the ultimate vote," Rich said in a statement.

"The Supreme Court saw the same troubling issues of discrimination and favoritism as the Senate Democrats who voted against these maps, and which go against every fiber of the Constitution's new anti-gerrymandering amendments overwhelmingly passed by the majority of Florida's voters."

Staff writer Andy Reid contributed to this report.

adeslatte@tribune.com or 850-222-5564

Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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