Florida Supreme Court: Never Mind Constitution, Redistricting Suit Can Go Ahead
Around the State
In a 5-2 decision along the usual ideological lines, Florida's liberal-leaning Supreme Court has denied a petition by the Florida Legislature to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the 2012 Senate redistricting map, neglecting to cite any constitutional basis for their ruling.
The plaintiffs – a Democratic-leaning coalition called “Fair Districts Now," made up of the League of Women Voters of Florida, the National Council of La Raza, and Common Cause Florida – are alleging that the newly drawn Senate and congressional maps reflect gerrymandering in favor of Republican candidates and incumbents, and unfairly disadvantage racial minorities. Lawyers for the Legislature insisted the Supreme Court's approval of the maps in 2012 was the final word on their validity.
According to Article III, Section 16(d) of the Florida Constitution, “[a] judgment of the supreme court of the state determining the apportionment to be valid shall be binding upon all the citizens of the state.”
Pariente did not cite any constitutional basis for her interpretation of the Constitution's plain language; she simply cited dicta – personal judicial opinions within a ruling, that go beyond the facts of a specific case and therefore have no binding precedent – from previous Supreme Court opinions.
“[W]e reject the Legislature’s argument ... because this court has never interpreted its Article III, Section 16, review as granting this court exclusive jurisdiction over all claims relating to legislative apportionment and limiting its jurisdiction to consider those claims to an initial 30-day review period,” Pariente explained. “Instead, under its interpretation of Article III, Section 16, this court has always conducted a facial review of the validity of the legislative apportionment plan and has consistently contemplated the possibility of subsequent fact-based challenges to the plan.”
Justice Charles T. Canady, in a strongly-worded dissent joined by Chief Justice Ricky Polston, slammed his colleagues for essentially ignoring the Florida Constitution.
“The majority totally fails to reckon with the text of this constitutional provision [Article III, Section 16(d)]. Rather than addressing this unambiguous text, the majority relies on dicta from prior opinions that also failed to reckon with the constitutional text,” Canady said. “In the reasoning set forth by the majority, what this court has said in dicta without any consideration of the pertinent constitutional text effectively trumps what the people themselves have said in the Constitution they have adopted. The constitutional order is thus inverted.”
In a statement released by Florida Senate President Don Gaetz's office, former state Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, who's representing the Legislature, expressed frustration at the ruling, while sounding a hopeful note that the Senate and congressional maps would eventually be vindicated.
"We are disappointed in the decision, which will increase taxpayer expenses by requiring another round -- and perhaps endless rounds -- of litigation to defend a redistricting plan that the court had already approved," he said. "However, we are confident that the plan will withstand further scrutiny."
Attorney Adam Schachter, who is representing Fair Districts Now, hailed his side's victory.
“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," he said in a statement. "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.”
Thursday's ruling won't come as a surprise to those who observed May's oral arguments before the court.
“Under your theory of the way this operates, there can be a succession of clients, maybe with different plaintiffs, and it could go on and on and on and we could be litigating this redistricting plan for the next decade," an exasperated Canady told Schachter.
During the oral arguments, Pariente, in apparent anticipation of Thursday's ruling, had tried to help Schachter respond to Canady.
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 954-235-9116.