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Supreme Court: Legislature can't short-circuit redistricting lawsuit

The 30-day review approved the map of all 120 House seats, but justices found serious deficiencies in several Senate districts. A redrawn Senate map subsequently won the court's approval.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday handed a legal setback to the state Legislature, ruling that a legal challenge to the remapping of Senate districts can go forward in a lower court. The 5-2 decision is a victory for the League of Women Voters of Florida, which is seeking to prove that the Republican Senate majority drew the current districts in violation of the two voter-approved "fair districts" amendments to the state Constitution that prohibit the drawing of districts to favor incumbents or a political party.

The Legislature was seeking a "writ of prohibition" from the state's highest court, based on the argument that the Supreme Court has "exclusive jurisdiction" over any redistricting challenge. Had the court adopted that view, it would have short-circuited the legal action by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the National Council of La Raza and seven individually-named voters.

The 47-page opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente,rejected the Legislature's arguments on at least six separate grounds. Justices said their initial 30-day review of the maps in 2012, as required by the Constitution, was a "facial" review based on limited evidence before the court. "Our facial review left open the possibility of future fact-intensive claims and did not preclude the future discovery or development of evidence," Pariente wrote.

"Second, in our apportionment decisions in 1972, 1982, and 1992, this Court specifically retained exclusive jurisdiction to consider subsequent challenges the Court could not have adjudicated during the limited thirty-day review period mandated by article III, section 16," Pariente wrote. In addition, to block future challenges "would directly contravene the intent of the framers and voters in passing the 2010 constitutional amendment establishing stringent new standards for the once-in-a-decade apportionment of legislative districts.”

Justice Charles Canady issued a strongly-worded dissenting opinion from the five-member majority in which Chief Justice Ricky Polston concurred.

In reaction, the lawyer for the Fair Districts citizens' group, Adam Schachter, issued a statement: “The public has a right to know whether their elected leaders are upholding the constitution, and today that right has been vindicated.  This is an important victory for Floridians who voted overwhelmingly to change the way the Legislature draws redistricting maps.   We are gratified that the Supreme Court rejected the Legislature’s attempt to shield itself from having to defend its map in court.  We look forward now to proving our claims that the Legislature violated the Fair Districts Amendments.”

-- With Steve Bousquet