TALLAHASSEE - A Leon County judge has rejected a request from the Legislature to dismiss a challenge to a Senate redistricting plan approved last year, the first ruling in what could be a precedent-setting case under the new Fair Districts standards.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, suggested an appeal was inevitable. The dispute comes in a case filed by a group of citizens and a coalition of voting-rights groups against the new Senate district boundaries, which opponents say violate the redistricting constitutional amendments approved by voters in a 2010 referendum. The Fair Districts Amendments were adopted in an effort to curb politically gerrymandered districts.
At issue in the case is a statement the constitution makes in a different section about the Supreme Court's automatic review of legislative redistricting maps: "A judgment of the supreme court of the state determining the apportionment to be valid shall be binding upon all the citizens of the state."
Because the Supreme Court approved a second draft of the Senate map it voided the first draft in April, attorneys for the House and Senate argued that there was no room for new challenges.
Those fighting the Senate map said that would make it nearly impossible to enforce the new standards, because the Supreme Court doesn't handle "as-applied" cases which consider facts as well as the law like circuit courts do. Instead, the high court only reviews "facial" challenges dealing with anything in the map that was obviously
A circuit judge, for example, could hear testimony or consider exhibits dealing with why lawmakers drew the maps a certain way.
"To the extent that the plaintiffs seek only a rehash of facial arguments made before the Florida Supreme Court, they will be disappointed," Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wrote Thursday. "But to the extent their claims are as-applied challenges to the plans, they are entitled to develop and to present relevant evidence to support their claims. The defendants likewise are entitled to prepare and present contrary evidence in defense."
Adam Schachter, a lawyer for opponents of the map, applauded the decision in a statement. "Judge Lewis' order means that Floridians will have their day in court," Schachter said. "This ruling gives our citizens the right to scrutinize the conduct and motives of those who drew the map."
An appeal is nearly certain.
"We always expected that this matter would be decided by the Florida Supreme Court," Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. "A bipartisan majority of the Senate, the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice approved these maps, the matter has been already been litigated at great length and the people of Florida are
ready to move on."