Legislators sent back to drawing board for Senate map

Mary Ellen Klas | The Miami Herald | 03/09/2012

In a historic ruling that could shape state politics for decades, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday tossed out the proposed state Senate legislative map, forcing lawmakers to start over in a special session next Wednesday.

In the detailed 234-page majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente, the court voted 7-0 to validate the House’s redistricting proposal, but rejected the Senate map, 5-2, for failing to follow new standards approved by voters in 2010.

Late Friday night, Gov. Rick Scott ordered lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for a special redistricting session, beginning Wednesday at 1 p.m. The Legislature will then have 14 days to redraw maps and return them to the court, leaving in limbo the Senate’s 40 district boundaries.

The court singled out eight Senate districts as invalid, including the districts of incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Republican Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and incoming Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. It concluded the districts were designed to protect incumbents and were in violation of the new anti-gerrymandering directive of voters.

A Herald/Times analysis found that the House map pitted 38 incumbents against each other, while the Senate map pitted no senators against each other and instead protected the districts of every incumbent hoping to return in 2012.

The Legislature’s maps had been challenged by the Florida Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida. They argued the Senate maps were drawn with the intent to protect Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and unfairly pack minorities into districts on the pretense of protecting minority voting strength.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said the Senate anticipated the court’s ruling.

"Our plan is to probably try to come back sometime next week, start working on it in committee, and try to get as much done as we can,’’ he said.

Each chamber drew its own map as part of a handshake agreement between the House and Senate. House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford said he will leave it up to the Senate to fix its map when both chambers return to Tallahassee.

Within hours of the ruling, the inevitable dominoes of a redrawn map began to fall. Former Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, filed to run in the district now held by Miami Democrat Sen. Gwen Margolis, whose district is already dominated by Hispanic voters.

The court commended the House for drawing visually and geographically compact districts as well as preserving the ability of minorities to elect legislators of their choosing.

But it said the Senate map “is rife with objective indicators of improper intent which, when considered in isolation do not amount to improper intent, but when viewed cumulatively demonstrate a clear pattern.”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Charles E.C. Perry blasted the Senate for the sprawling, non-compact minority districts drawn under the pretense of protecting minority rights.

"I cannot agree that there was a rational basis for the Senate to decide to turn a blind eye to population data when drawing their plan,’’ Perry wrote. “By refusing any attempt to draw more compact districts, while maintaining the required racial proportions, there is at least the appearance that the Senate thumbed its nose at the will of the people."

The new rules establish landmark standards that legislators must follow when they embark on the once-a-decade redistricting process. They prohibit lawmakers from intentionally protecting incumbents and political parties; require them to preserve minority voting rights; and, order them to draw compact districts where possible.

But the court not only rejected the Senate map, it shot holes in the arguments of the Legislature’s lawyers as well as Attorney General Pam Bondi. They said the court should limit its review and let the details be fought over in the lower courts.

The court concluded it "would be an abdication of this court‘s responsibility under the Florida Constitution" to fail to conduct a thorough review. It also warned that waiting for the lower courts could "create uncertainty for voters" and candidates who must qualify to run for their seats during the week of June 4.

The new Fair Districts standards didn’t offer the court any guidance as to how to define those concepts, and the court was clearly divided over how far it should go into settling the factual disputes over those elements.

Chief Justice Charles Canady agreed with Bondi and the Legislature’s lawyers in a strongly-worded dissenting opinion that accused the majority of abrogating the court’s precedent of conducting a limited review of redistricting maps and leaving fact-based claims to be sorted out in the trial courts.

“Based on nothing more than suspicion and surmise, the majority concludes that certain district lines were drawn with improper intent — when there is an evident, rational, permissible basis for the drawing of those lines,’’ Canady wrote, with Justice Ricky Polston concurring.

But Pariente, who was joined by Justices Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga, Fred Lewis and Charles Perry said the new Fair Districts amendments imposed upon the court "a weighty obligation” to measure the Legislature’s actions “with a very specific constitutional yardstick."

The court also rejected the argument used by House and Senate leaders that the new constitutional standards required the state to adhere to virtually the same minority districts as before.

The court also concluded that the Senate’s decision to renumber districts, giving some members longer terms than others under term limits, was an attempt to improperly manipulate numbers and “was intended to favor incumbents.”

Herald/Times writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.




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