TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida's highest court on Wednesday jumped into a long-running dispute that could alter the fate of the state's 27 members of Congress.
The Florida Supreme Court held an hour-long hearing examining whether or not the Republican-controlled Legislature flouted voter-approved standards intended to stop legislators from drawing districts to help incumbents or members of a political party.
A circuit court judge ruled last summer there was enough evidence to show that GOP consultants helped make a "mockery" of the process and ruled that two congressional districts were invalid. Legislators in August then drew new maps that altered seven districts and shifted nearly 400,000 voters in central and north Florida.
There's no timetable for when justices could rule, but a decision throwing out the current map could reverberate into the 2016 elections. The groups challenging the current maps wants changes made to districts from the Panhandle all the way to Miami-Dade county.
Most of the justices were silent as they heard lawyers for both sides clash over whether the Legislature intentionally violated the "Fair Districts" amendment passed by voters in 2010. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, maintains the districts violate the law.
Justice Barbara Pariente had several pointed exchanges, including questioning why legislators deleted emails dealing with redistricting back in 2012. She also asked about private meetings held between top legislative leaders to discuss the final maps that were eventually approved. Those facts were part of the "circumstantial" evidence cited by Judge Terry Lewis when he initially threw out the maps.
Justice Charles Canady, however, questioned whether or not there was proof that the entire map approved by the Legislature had been drawn for "partisan" reasons.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who led the redistricting efforts last August, remained confident that the state Supreme Court would uphold the current districts. He argued that the new map passed last summer fixed any of the "so-called nefarious activities" that had been faulted by Lewis.
"I don't know how the Supreme Court can't uphold it," Galvano said shortly after the hearing.
David King, an attorney representing the groups suing the Legislature, asserted during the hearing that there were still problems with the map approved last year, especially with the district now held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown. Brown's district stretches from Jacksonville to central Florida. King's groups have suggested it should be redrawn to stretch westward to Tallahassee.
King argued that GOP legislators want to keep Brown's district as it is to avoid placing minority voters in other districts — and potentially having those districts change parties.
"They are not just satisfied with landslide margins, they want avalanche margins," King said of state legislators.
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