TALLAHASSEE The Florida Supreme Court on Friday sent the congressional redistricting case back to the trial court, although the justices did not block the Legislature from meeting in another special session to resolve the issue.
The case ended up at the state’s highest court after the House and Senate failed to pass a new congressional map in a two-week special session last month. Lawmakers had been forced into the session by a July order from the Supreme Court, which found eight of 27 districts violated the state constitutional prohibition against drawing lines to favor incumbents or political parties.
Friday’s decision means Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will hold a trial court hearing that would decide what map will be used, with the House and Senate advancing their versions of a new congressional map. But the justices also said nothing precludes lawmakers from holding another special session to try to resolve their differences before then.
The justices also retained the 100-day deadline, which expires Oct. 17, for correcting the flaws in the congressional districts.
“Sufficient time exists for the Legislature to accomplish this task before the matter is scheduled for a hearing before the trial court, should the House and Senate agree to convene for another special session,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a concurring opinion.
But Labarga also said if lawmakers fail to act again “the judiciary must take steps to ensure that a constitutionally compliant congressional redistricting plan is in place ... to provide certainty to candidates and voters” in the upcoming 2016 elections.
The House and Senate were largely in agreement on the statewide map but differed over districts in Hillsborough County, the Orlando area and the issue of splitting Sarasota County into two districts. The House map splits Sarasota County between districts now held by U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, and Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee. The Senate map consolidates Sarasota into one district.
Since the session, Senate leaders have put out feelers to the House about holding another special session, with Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, offering a “compromise” map that incorporated most of the provisions of the House map, while keeping Sarasota County in one district.
House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said Galvano’s map would have been “seriously” considered by the House if lawmakers were still in session, but thus far House leaders have stuck to their position that the map differences might best be settled in the trial court.
Following the ruling, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, neither endorsed nor rejected another special session.
“Today the court provided a measure of certainty for how we may go forward to adopt a constitutional congressional map, as the voters expect from us,” Crisafulli said. “We look forward to further reviewing the order to determine our next steps.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the Legislature “still has time to enact a unified congressional plan.”
“This decision has not precluded the opportunity for the House and Senate to draw a map, and each chamber should take advantage of the ample time to address the differences between our respective plans,” Gardiner said. “As we have expressed since the conclusion of the special session, the Senate is willing to reconvene to fulfill our constitutional obligation.”
Lawmakers are already scheduled to return to Tallahassee for a series of committee meetings during the third week of September as they prepare for their 2016 regular session, which begins in January.
Advocates for the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which had challenged the original Congressional map as an unconstitutional violation of the Fair Districts amendment, said they are pleased by Friday’s decision, although the justices rejected their request to have the appellate court draw the new map.
“We very much appreciate the Florida Supreme Court’s guidance and look forward to appearing before Judge Lewis to ensure that Florida’s citizens have a constitutionally compliant congressional map for 2016,” said David King, a lawyer for the LWV and other challengers.
Here are the latest developments in Florida’s congressional redistricting:
— The Florida Supreme Court on Friday sent the redistricting case back to the trial court where the differences in the House and Senate maps could be resolved.
— Justices also left open the possibility that the Legislature could hold another special session to pass a map before the trial court takes up the issue.
— Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said his chamber is ready to work out the differences in another special session.
— House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he wants more time to review the latest court order before committing the House to a course of action.
— Lawmakers are already scheduled to return to Tallahassee in the third week of September to begin committee meetings in preparation for the 2016 session.
— The Supreme Court retained a 100-day deadline on correcting the congressional districts, which the court found in July violated the state constitutional prohibition against gerrymandering, meaning a new map will have to be finished before Oct. 17.