Supreme Court weighs new district maps

Feb 29, 2012

Florida’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the state’s new voting district plans Wednesday . Regan McCarthy reports the justices grilled supporters and opponents of the maps giving no clear indication of how they might rule. 

Once legislators pass a new set of district maps, The Florida Supreme Court is charged with reviewing the plans for constitutionality. It’s part of the redistricting process that happens once every ten years. And lawyers representing the legislature say the court should give the legislature’s maps “deference” if it finds the lawmakers made a “good faith effort” to follow the constitution, rather than delving into some of the stickier facts. But Judge Peggy Quince isn’t so sure, saying this is the first time the court will be asked to consider a number of new constitutional rules stemming from the fair district Amendments.

“Since the legislature has not had to deal with these same standards before either I think we have a different obligation here to look at these more in depth.”

The Fair District Amendments put new constitutional rules in place meant to ensure more compact districts, protect minorities and cut out gerrymandering. Former House Speaker and University of Florida Law Professor Jon Mills is the Florida Democratic Party’s representation in the case. Mills says he thinks the court should interpret meaning for the new standards. For example Mills says the court should define what intent means, when the law says the maps can’t be drawn with the intent to favor an incumbent.

What you have to establish the best you can in interpreting intent, is how do you infer intent from actions, because you’re unlikely to get a mass confession that there was something wrong.”

Mills also suggests defining things like what a geographical boundary is – for example do small creeks and roads count? Then Mills says the court would have several options, like sending the maps back to the legislature, but this time with an interpretation and more clarity about how the body can make a constitutional plan.

“The benefit of that is they now operate with a constitutional interpretation when before they were obligated to operate from simply the language, which many of them have said its ambiguous. We need to flesh it out.”

Michael Carvin is defending the plan. He represents the Senate, and argues there won’t be time in a such a short proceeding to answer “fact intensive” questions. And he says even providing definitions could be a mistake.

If you try to establish some fake priority or some handcuffs that would be binding in all circumstances, I suggest it would come back to bite you.”

And Chief Justice Charles Canaday questions whether a deeper factual analysis might be better left to the lower courts.

“How in this proceeding where there is going to be no adversarial testing of evidence could we enter into a judgment that would supplant the judgment that’s been made by the legislature?”

But Justice Quince asks why then the Florida Supreme Court given the job of review.

“What is the point of the Supreme court review? I mean it seems to me that what we have here is an argument that says we accept what the House and the Senate has done here and that’s it. We can’t define the standards, we can’t make any facts. What are we supposed to do?”

Meanwhile Justice Barbara Pariente wonders whether the court can approve one map while finding the other invalid.

“If we decided that the Senate map has problems in terms of the constitutional criteria, but the House because the approach was in some ways different, does not suffer from the same problems, do we have the option of only invalidating part of the joint resolution? The senate plan and not the House plan?”

Both chambers signed off on the plans for House and Senate districts, but Pariente points out the respective maps were created in their own chamber and passed with little debate in the other chamber. State law gives the courts 30 days to make a preliminary ruling from the time it receives the maps from the Attorney General.  That time runs out in early March.