TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Florida Supreme Court was asked Thursday to end a bruising political battle over whether state legislators ignored new standards designed to limit political influence in drawing up new districts for themselves.
Justices presided over a nearly hour-long clash between lawyers representing the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and those representing several groups including the League of Women Voters.
The Legislature wants the court to throw out a lawsuit challenging new districts for the state Senate. The Supreme Court last year initially rejected the Senate map — but then approved a revised version during a 30-day review period.
Raoul Cantero, a former justice representing the Senate, said those upset with the new maps should not get a chance to challenge them now in a trial court.
"The constitution provides for exclusive jurisdiction in the Florida Supreme Court and any evidence had to be brought in that case," Cantero told reporters after the hearing.
But Adam Schachter, a lawyer representing the groups challenging the redistricting plan, said a trial is needed so that evidence can be collected to determine if legislators violated the "Fair Districts" amendments that voters passed in 2010.
Those amendments mandate that legislators can't draw legislative or Congressional districts intended to protect incumbents or members of a certain political party, a practice that is known as "gerrymandering."
Schachter said if the Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit then, "Fair Districts will be nothing more than words on a paper."
The lawsuit has already turned up documents showing top GOP officials met in late 2010 to brainstorm redistricting with political consultants and legislative staffers. Lawyers for the League are pushing to interview actual legislators about why they drew districts a certain way.
Legislative lawyers, meanwhile, have unearthed emails showing that "Fair Districts" backers worked on a map submitted as part of one lawsuit where the "underlying goal" was to increase "safe Democratic seats" and the number of "competitive seats."
Republicans hold a 26-14 advantage in the Florida Senate, a 76-44 edge in the state House and a 17-10 advantage in the state's congressional delegation even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state and President Barack Obama carried the state.
Justices did not indicate when they would rule. And the majority of the court sat stone-faced and silent during the proceedings on Thursday.
But Justice Charles Canady, who was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, did not hide that he was skeptical of the lawsuit.
He said accepting the Fair Districts backers' point of view would mean bring a never-ending series of lawsuits.
"It could go on and on and on and we could be litigating this redistricting plan for the next decade," Canady.
But Justice Barbara Pariente noted that lawyers for the Legislature had changed their position from a year ago.
Back in 2012, legislative lawyers maintained that the Supreme Court could only do a cursory review and that any questions about whether "Fair Districts" standards were violated she be left to a trial court first.
She also said that until courts rule on how to apply the new "Fair Districts" amendments that there could be a "messy" legal situation.
The Supreme Court was only dealing with just one of three ongoing lawsuits dealing with redistricting. There are two lawsuits challenging the maps drawn up for Congress. The Congressional map, however, was not reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
The maps adopted last year led to the election of more Democrats to both Congress and the Legislature. But critics contend the final districts still do not reflect Florida's political divide.
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