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Redistricting battle returns to Florida Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature and the League of Women Voters squared off Thursday before the Florida Supreme Court over the behind-the-scenes politics that led to the 2012 remapping of legislative districts by Republican lawmakers.

The Legislature argues that the Supreme Court should assert its "sole and exclusive jurisdiction" over redistricting and direct a lower court to dismiss a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters. That lawsuit challenges the validity of the House and Senate maps the Supreme Court blessed last year.

The league and other groups argue that they should be allowed to press ahead with their lawsuit in circuit court in Tallahassee in an effort to prove that lawmakers drew districts with the intent to protect Republicans and incumbent lawmakers, in violation of the 2010 voter-approved "fair districts" amendments to the Florida Constitution.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, were represented in court by former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, a Miami lawyer who said that only the state's highest court can rule on the validity of the once-a-decade remapping of districts, known as reapportionment.

"The Constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court," Cantero said. "We went through this very grueling process for several weeks last year, and that's it until 2020."

Miami lawyer Adam Schachter, representing the League of Women Voters, said the two fair district amendments changed the Constitution to prevent the Legislature from engaging in partisan politics in redrawing districts. He said evidence already unearthed in the lower court case, before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, suggests the amendments were violated.

For that reason, Schachter argued, the case should be allowed to proceed.

"The Florida voters passed these amendments to change the process, and allowing them access to the courts is the way to effectuate that change," Schachter told justices, adding that if the circuit court case is dismissed, "we will never know" what really happened.

Internal emails show that Republicans and Democrats privately sought to maximize political advantages in redistricting. Republicans used private email accounts, held brainstorming sessions and set up personal "dropboxes." A Democratic consultant, Brad Wieneke, wrote a 2011 email that said in part: "Goal is to increase the number of safe Democratic seats and the number of competitive seats."

During nearly an hour of oral arguments Thursday, the most outspoken justice was Charles Canady, a former Republican state legislator and member of Congress, who was openly skeptical of many of Schachter's arguments and suggested that there has to be a finality to lawsuits challenging redistricting plans.

"We can be litigating these redistricting plans over and over and over again for the next decade," Canady said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Redistricting battle returns to Florida Supreme Court 05/09/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 8:47pm]
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