By JIM SAUNDERS
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
A high-stakes legal battle about the constitutionality of the state's congressional districts should be fast-tracked to the Florida Supreme Court, a divided appeals court ruled Wednesday.
Under the ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal would not take up a challenge to districts redrawn in August by the Legislature and to other decisions by a circuit judge. Instead, the case would go directly to the Supreme Court – a relatively unusual move known as "certification" of the case to the higher court.
A panel of the appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, agreed on the certification issue with voting-rights groups that have waged a drawn-out legal battle about whether congressional district lines were drawn in 2012 and redrawn this year to favor Republicans. While the redrawn districts would not take effect until the 2016 elections, the majority of the appeals court pointed to the lengthy history of the case in deciding to pass it along to the Supreme Court.
"In this case, any doubts about the need for immediate review by the Supreme Court should be resolved in favor of certification,'' said the opinion, written by Judge Philip Padovano and joined by Judge Simone Marstiller.
But in a dissent, Judge Scott Makar disputed the need to quickly send the case to the Supreme Court because the new districts won't take effect until 2016.
amounts to a 9-1-1 call to the Florida Supreme Court: 'You’re needed now!' " Makar wrote. "That call is not justified in this case; ample time existing for the normal appellate process to be followed over the next two years. This (appeals) court can handle the matter expeditiously, leaving more than adequate time for Supreme Court review, if it deems it necessary."
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis this summer tossed out congressional districts drawn by the Legislature in 2012, ruling that the districts violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010. Lewis singled out districts held by incumbent U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown and Daniel Webster.
Lawmakers met in August for a special session to redraw the map. Lewis upheld the revised districts, prompting an appeal from plaintiffs in the case, which include the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and individual voters.
In a notice of appeal filed with the 1st District Court of Appeal, the plaintiffs said they would challenge Lewis' ruling that upheld the redrawn map. But they also indicated the appeal would involve parts of Lewis' earlier ruling that struck down the 2012 map.
The Supreme Court is already grappling with one appeal that is an offshoot of the redistricting case. That appeal deals with whether records of Republican consultant Pat Bainter and his firm, Gainesville-based Data Targeting, Inc., should have been used in the redistricting case in circuit court.