TALLAHASSEE -- For more than a year, a quietly simmering legal battle over the partisan intentions of Florida's Legislature and Fair Districts backers has been playing out over whether the state's re-drawn maps are still designed to protect ruling Republicans.
On Thursday, the fight playing out in a trio of lawsuits returned to the Florida Supreme Court, which forced lawmakers to redraw their state Senate districts last year after a brief, 30-day review of how they might perform in elections.
But the League of Women Voters, National Council of La Raza and other critics have argued since last year that the Legislature's handiwork still intentionally preserves GOP majorities, in violation of the non-political requirements of the Fair Districts amendment to the state Constitution. They have sued in Leon County Circuit Court and have been seeking to gather evidence in emails and testimony of lawmakers to make their case.
But as thousands of emails gathered from both sides already show, partisan favoritism was foremost on everyone's mind. Republicans worked with political consultants to attempt to stilt maps in their favor. Democratic consultants hired by Fair Districts backers wrote about drawing safe seats for Democrats, particularly U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
The legal question pending before the high court is whether ithas already said its peace when it OK'd the second-version of the Senate districts in April 2012.
Florida's Constitution already spelled out that the high-court had 30 days to review congressional and legislative maps once they are redrawn every decade to make sure they are "valid" on their face. The Fair Districts amendments tasked the court with also determining whether lawmakers "intended" to draw unfair maps, a question the court grappled with in the short time-frame it had to render a decision last year.
Without the benefit of in-depth evidence-gathering, the high court had to look at the maps as drawn and infer whether they followed the Fair Districts amendments, which prohibit drawing new lines with the intent of favoring parties or candidates.
Last year, the Legislature's legal team argued the court shouldn'y delve into trying to analyze how districts would perform in elections. The court did just that, initially determining that the maps unfairly benefited Republicans -- particularly in Central Florida -- and ordered them to be re-drawn. After last fall's elections, Republicans saw their majority slip from 28-12 in the Senate to 26-14.
But Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente even lamented in the second order she wrote last year upholding the Senate map that she was "concerned that the constraints relating to the time, the process, and the standards in combination have prevented the will of voters ... from being fully effectuated."
The Legislature's lawyers are arguing now that the court has essentially already upheld the maps and further legal challenges shouldn't be allowed.
Otherwise, “it certainly opens up the possibility for serial redistricting litigation," said Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice from Miami.
Pariente said Thursday that she never imagined the opinion she authored last year would be used now by the Senate to argue that no further legal challenges to the maps based on more developed facts could proceed.
"It may be a little messy until we get the law sorted out," Pariente said.
"My frustration is that … nobody ever said there wouldn’t be a chance to litigate these factually intense claims after the the initial judgment was entered."
Lawyers for the Fair District backers argued that without allowing the trial case to go forward, Fair Districts would never be followed because lawmakers would be able to run out the clock on the Supreme Court's initial window for reviewing the amendments.
"The Fair districts amendments were supposed to fundamentally change the way the Florida Legislature draws districts," said said Fair Districts lawyer Adam Schachter.
"That change quite simply will not happen unless citizens can bring challenges like this one."
But Justice Charles Canady sharply disagreed.
“The point is, 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," he said forcefully.
The Supreme Court has no timetable for making a decision on whether the trial court case can go forward. Fair Districts backers have separately sued over the congressional maps, and that case is awaiting a First District Court of Appeal decision on whether lawmakers will have to testify and turn over more documents, as well as whether Fair Districts groups will have to answer questions under oath.