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Weekly Roundup: Nobody's Perfect

August 21, 2014 - 6:00pm

What's the old saying? You win some and you lose some?

That was the case for the state in court this week, where attorneys won a historic case and lost another. On one hand, lawyers for the Legislature won a total victory in the second round of the legal battle over the state's congressional districts when a Leon County judge ruled that a redrawn plan complied with the Florida Constitution's prohibition on political gerrymandering. And he ruled in favor of the state on the question of whether the 2014 elections will be held under the existing map or the new one.

On the other hand, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by a federal judge -- though he suspended his ruling until an almost-inevitable appeal can be heard.

Outside the courtroom, political battles continued ahead of Tuesday's primaries, though both Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist were expected to cruise to easy victories.


It's beginning to seem like the second time is the charm for the Legislature when it comes to following the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments, approved by voters in 2010.

Lawmakers' first effort at crafting districts for the state Senate was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court; their second attempt was approved. And after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis struck down the congressional map that lawmakers passed in 2012, he accepted the version that the Legislature drew in a special session earlier this month.

In doing so, Lewis brushed aside the arguments of voting-rights organizations who said that by continuing the north-south orientation of Congressional District 5, which runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, the GOP was packing too many black voters into that district in an effort to shore up nearby Republican districts.

Opponents of the map wanted District 5 to run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west. Lewis didn't dispute arguments that the critics' version was more compact than the Legislature's, at least by some measurements.

"The Legislature is not required, however, to produce a map that the plaintiffs, or I, or anyone else might prefer," Lewis wrote. "The Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution."

The judge also rejected a request from the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups that had challenged the map to push back elections in seven districts affected by the rewrite. A lawyer for the voting-rights organizations promised an appeal, despite Senate President Don Gaetz's request that the litigation end.

"I believe the people of Florida have been given fairness and finality by Judge Lewis' decision and that going forward Democrats and Republicans ought to spend less time in the courtroom and more time working to build a better Florida," Gaetz said.

Republican Congressman Daniel Webster, whose district was redrawn as a result of the court battle, appeared to be taking no chances. Webster has established a fund that could be used to pay legal expenses, the National Journal reported.

The filing, according to the National Journal, said the fund is "for the sole purpose of defraying the legal costs ... in connection with his candidacy for an election to federal office."


The state has had less success defending the ban on same-sex marriage, which Florida voters approved in 2008. A handful of state courts had already ruled that the restriction is unconstitutional, and a federal judge followed suit Thursday. The significance of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle's ruling is that it would be the first to apply statewide -- if, that is, it takes effect.

Hinkle agreed to stay his ruling pending a likely appeal by Attorney General Pam Bondi. Between the Florida case and rulings in other states striking down similar bans on gay marriage, the issue is believed to be on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The institution of marriage survived when bans on interracial marriage were struck down, and the institution will survive when bans on same-sex marriage are struck down," Hinkle wrote in a 33-page ruling. "Liberty, tolerance, and respect are not zero-sum concepts. Those who enter opposite-sex marriages are harmed not at all when others, including these plaintiffs, are given the liberty to choose their own life partners and are shown the respect that comes with formal marriage."

The ruling excited Floridians like Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political operative who married his partner, Carlos Andrade, last year in Washington, D.C. Ulvert and Andrade are among nine couples who challenged the marriage ban.

"It's a judge recognizing my marriage to my husband in a state where I was born and raised. And it means that a law that discriminated against couples like me and Carlos is unconstitutional," Ulvert said.

But Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger, who drafted and pushed the 2008 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, dismissed the idea that he and other supporters of the restriction are on the wrong side of history.

"A little boy who longs to have a father in the inner city -- that will never be on the wrong side of history," he said. "The little girl who has two dads and doesn't have a mom and she wants someone to guide her through the changes that a woman's body goes through -- that's never going to be on the wrong side of history. And the beauty of how a man and woman come together and life is born and the next generation springs from that, that's never going to be on the wrong side of history."


At least officially, both Scott, the Republican incumbent governor, and Crist, a former Republican running to regain his old job as a Democrat, have primary challengers.

Scott is up against a pair of virtually unknown candidates, one of whom has drawn more press notice for her bizarre fundraising reports than her platform. Crist's challenge is a bit more difficult, with former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich having spoken to essentially every Democrat group that will hear her as she mounts a long-shot bid against Crist.

But the primary races have largely taken a back seat to the expected head-to-head battle between Florida's last two governors. Scott tried to seize the initiative this week, touting plans to boost education spending and shore up the state's infrastructure and meeting with climate scientists who don't share the governor's previous skepticism about man-made global warming.

In a series of campaign stops, he hyped a plan to reinforce the state's roads, ports and airports.

"I am committed to keeping Florida moving by creating strategic investment opportunities to expand our state's transportation system," Scott, who appeared Monday in Jacksonville, said in a prepared statement.

The plan focuses heavily on expanding parts of the existing transit infrastructure by affirming support for the state Department of Transportation's $41 billion 5-year work program.

Scott also promised to propose a budget in 2015 that would increase school spending to its highest level in history on a per-student basis. The old record is held, not coincidentally, by Crist.

"Because we were able to get Florida's economy back on track, revenues are now projected to stay at a strong enough rate to support historic investments in education," Scott said.

On both counts, critics said the governor, who rejected high-speed rail money and cut education spending early in his term, was experiencing politically convenient election-year conversions.

"No right-minded parent or teacher in this state believes Rick Scott, the same guy who cut K-12 education by $1.3 billion, cares about anything but holding onto power so he can keep giving away our tax dollars to corporations," Crist campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement.

It wasn't clear that any similar turnabout was coming on climate change. In 2010, during his first run for office, Scott said he wasn't convinced climate change was man-made. Since then, when asked how he'd handle the problem, he's said he's "not a scientist."

Scientists met with Scott on Tuesday, but said they didn't think they had made much of an impact on the governor, who said little other than to ask whether the professors' students were getting jobs in Florida.

"He didn't reflect on the science," David Hastings, a professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, said after the meeting. "So he asked modest questions, but he did not ask questions that reflected his understanding of the material."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Judge Terry Lewis rules that the Legislature's proposed fix for the state's congressional districts is in line with the Florida Constitution's ban on gerrymandering, and that this year's elections will go forward under a 2012 redistricting plan.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "So I can promise you: It's not my anticipated lobbying office, 'cause I don't see that in my future, ever. I would rather be struck by a bolt of lightning than to be up there lobbying those folks. They're not my cup of tea." -- Attorney John Morgan, on whether his Tallahassee office might be a base for him to lobby.

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