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- 2012 - April - 23rd -

Senate map opponents meet more skeptical court

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

Opponents of the second draft of legislative redistricting plans for the state Senate faced a tough reception from the Florida Supreme Court on Friday, raising the possibility that justices might allow the new plan to stand.

Even if the court were to decide to toss the parts of the map that seemed most problematic to some justices — particularly a set of districts in Northeast Florida — it seems likely that any ruling would be narrow.

The state constitution requires justices to draft their own map if they rule the second version of the Senate plan violates the new anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards adopted by voters in a November 2010 referendum.

“If we decided that one district was invalid, nobody would suggest that the whole map should be redrawn,” said Justice Barbara Pariente, who wrote the opinion ruling that the initial Senate map included extensive efforts to protect incumbents.

That ruling struck down eight specific districts and the system used to number the districts, which can control whether senators serve eight or 10 years in office before being forced out by term limits.

Much of the discussion Friday was focused on the Legislature’s decision to divide the city of Daytona Beach between two Senate districts. That was the result of an order by the court to keep a district meant to allow black voters the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice wholly within Duval County — pushing Daytona Beach out of that district.

Paul Smith, an attorney for a coalition of voting-rights groups, said Daytona Beach was then split in an attempt to prevent black voters there from swinging marginal districts in GOP-friendly Northeast Florida into the Democratic column.

“Exactly what they had achieved with District 6, they decided they would try to achieve it without District 6,” Smith said.

Despite tough questioning for Smith and Jon Mills, who represented the Florida Democratic Party in the oral arguments, some justices also seemed to question whether the Legislature’s decision to split Daytona Beach in order to keep other areas together — including solidly Republican Clay County — was allowed by the constitution.

“If the justification is, ‘Well, we just decided we don’t want to split Clay County,’ is that the kind of justification that raises some question about the political motive?” Pariente asked.

Raoul Cantero, who represented the Senate at the hearing, said that choice was left to lawmakers.

“This constitution sets some boundaries for the Legislature, but within those parameters, the Legislature is still able to make discretionary calls,” said Cantero, himself a former justice, and who also co-chairs Pariente’s retention campaign.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the NAACP said the court should rebuff the Senate’s effort to redraw the minority district in Northeast Florida.

The results of a three-way U.S. Senate race in 2010 — in which white Gov. Charlie Crist won the district over black Congressman Kendrick Meek and Latino former state House Speaker Marco Rubio — showed that white Democratic-leaning voters could deny black voters their choice of candidates.

Justices wondered whether that election, in which the Republican Rubio defeated Democratic candidate Meek and unaffiliated Crist statewide, was a good example.

“I don’t believe you’d find anyone that would suggest that it was anything but the most unusual and different in the history of Florida,” said Justice Fred Lewis.

Cantero also noted that the district closely tracked an alternative proposed by the League of Women Voters that was praised by the 5-2 majority that threw out the first Senate map.

“I have never seen a case in my life where somebody gets reversed for doing exactly what the court told them to do,” he said.

After the arguments, Riggs told reporters that the district the Senate drew was actually worse for black voters than the one proposed by the league.

“I think this court owes more in fairness to minority voters in the state than it does the Senate. ... If someone is going to have to be confronted with unfairness, it shouldn’t be black voters in Northeast Florida,” she said.

Opponents of the map brushed aside the tough questioning by justices, saying they could still decide to strike some specific districts. But even Smith said he didn’t expect a wholesale redrawing of the map even if that happened.

Former Sen. Dan Gelber, counsel for Fair Districts Now, said the group had in some ways already achieved its goal by involving the Supreme Court in a more aggressive vetting of the maps than before the amendments were approved.

“No matter what the ruling is, at the end of the day, there is real, meaningful oversight of a process that had never had oversight before,” Gelber said.

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