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Weekly Roundup: Court and Grayson Spice up Summer Week

July 10, 2015 - 8:00pm

Things were just starting to slow down in Tallahassee, returning to the summertime rhythm devoid of crowds of college students and the activities of the Legislature.

But now, lawmakers might be coming back.

The Florida Supreme Court issued a redistricting ruling Thursday that appears bound to spark another special session, which would mark the third time legislators have met this year. Throw in a court challenge to Senate maps that will begin in late September, and you have the recipe for several more months of talking about a process that was supposed to be done three years ago.

The court was busy Thursday, also issuing decisions on the state's controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law and how to pay for the state's legal aid programs. Around the same time, Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson was officially announcing what most already assumed: He's running for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in next year's elections.

A busy news day to cap off a slow week. There might still be a few more of the latter in the near future, but it looks like there will be plenty of the former as well.


Even before lawmakers wrapped up their June special session to finish crafting the state budget, there was already speculation that a Supreme Court ruling on the state's congressional lines could upset any plans to wait until January to hold the next session.

Then, it happened. A bitterly divided Florida Supreme Court threw out eight congressional districts under the state's anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts Amendment, then ordered the Legislature to redraw the lines within the next 100 days.

For those who have watched the court on redistricting --- or anything else, really --- the 5-2 decision was not much of a surprise. It featured the five more-liberal justices in the majority and a pair of conservative justices in the minority. Justice Barbara Pariente, who has crafted most of the court's decisions on redistricting since voters put Fair Districts into the Florida Constitution in 2010, wrote the opinion.

What was a little more surprising were the sharp attacks that the two sides of the court hurled at each other, perhaps a sign that years of ruling on the redistricting standards was starting to take a toll.

Justice Charles Canady used his dissent to blast the majority for no less than doing violence to the state's form of government.

"This decision causes serious damage to our constitutional structure," Canady, a former lawmaker, wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Ricky Polston. "The proper functioning of the judicial process is deformed and the separation of powers is breached in an unprecedented manner. Since 2012, this court's decisions concerning the redistricting process have been characterized by a repeated rewriting of the rules."

Pariente was having none of it. She called Canady's criticisms "extravagant" and suggested he wanted the court to abdicate its responsibility to make sure that lawmakers follow the law.

"Far from upending the law, then, our legal analysis today adheres to our recent redistricting precedents," she wrote. "The dissent, to the contrary, continues its refusal to acknowledge the import of the Fair Districts Amendment."

As for the actual fallout, the court has now issued orders that will require a delicate balancing act by map-drawers. One of the districts thrown out is represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown. Brown's district ambles its way from Jacksonville to Orlando to create an opportunity for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

The Supreme Court told lawmakers to draw the district's lines from east to west --- likely from the Jacksonville area to Tallahassee. But the Legislature will also have to avoid violating the Voting Rights Act when it crafts the new lines.

Justices also ordered up new versions of districts 13 and 14 "to avoid crossing Tampa Bay" and an overhaul of vast swaths of South Florida --- always one of the more difficult and racially charged areas of the state when it comes to redistricting.

And the redrawing might not stop there. A trial on state Senate districts that lawmakers drew in 2012 is set to be heard by Circuit Judge George Reynolds beginning Sept. 25.


The same 5-2 majority in the redistricting case also ruled that people who use Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground legal defense have the burden of proving they should be shielded from prosecution

In Stand Your Ground cases, which come under a law that in part provides immunity to people who use justifiable force in self-defense, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants qualify for the immunity. The Supreme Court ruling Thursday centered on who should have the burden of proof during those hearings --- defendants or prosecutors.

Justices sided with lower courts that have required defendants to prove that they should be protected from prosecution by the self-defense law. The majority opinion, written by Pariente, said immunity in the Stand Your Ground law "is not a blanket immunity, but rather, requires the establishment that the use of force was legally justified."

"We conclude that placing the burden of proof on the defendant to establish entitlement to Stand Your Ground immunity by a preponderance of the evidence at the pretrial evidentiary hearing, rather than on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's use of force was not justified, is consistent with this court's precedent and gives effect to the legislative intent,'' said the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred in the outcome, though he did not sign on to the majority opinion.

Canady was once again in dissent, writing that the majority ruling "substantially curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial conferred by the Legislature under the Stand Your Ground law."

"The factual question raised by the assertion of Stand Your Ground immunity in a pretrial evidentiary hearing is the same as the factual question raised by a Stand Your Ground defense presented at trial: whether the evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's conduct was not justified under the governing statutory standard,'' Canady wrote.

A 4-3 majority of the court, meanwhile, rejected a proposal that could have led to attorneys paying higher Florida Bar membership fees to help cover the costs of legal services for the poor.

The measure would have allowed the Bar to increase dues by as much as $100 a year, with the increased money going to legal-aid programs. The Bar opposed the proposal, which was spearheaded by former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero and backed by more than 500 lawyers.

The court's majority wrote that "there is an urgent need to develop new solutions and sustainable sources of funding for legal aid" but said a more-comprehensive approach is needed than the possible increase in Bar dues.


In one of the least-shocking stories of the week, Grayson announced Thursday that he would run for the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is running for president. Grayson wasted little time targeting his primary opponent, Congressman Patrick Murphy, who has the backing of much of the party's establishment.

"He's a Republican,'' Grayson told Orlando television station WESH. "He's really a Republican pretending to be a Democrat."

But party leaders clearly see Murphy as a better general-election candidate than Grayson. Murphy knocked off high-profile Republican Congressman Allen West in 2012 and cruised to re-election last year in a swing district that includes St. Lucie and Martin counties and part of Palm Beach County.

In response to Grayson's candidacy, Murphy released a statement Thursday touching on his support for issues that are important with Democratic primary voters.

"I look forward to a clean, honest discussion of the issues in this primary,'' Murphy said. "I have built a strong record of working together to get things done, while remaining true to core Democratic principles like protecting Social Security and Medicare, fighting for a woman's right to choose, and strengthening the middle class."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's congressional boundaries, setting the stage for a politically charged fight over new lines.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We seem to attract our fair share of crazies in the Sunshine State, and we want to protect our citizens. That's why we're the only state in America that has a 50-year mandatory prison sentence for anyone who rapes a child under the age of 12." --- Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, during a call to the morning show on SiriusXM Radio channel POTUS.

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