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Supreme Court gets quickly to the point: how far should it go on redistricting

The public benches in the ornate chambers of the Florida Supreme Court are packed this morning as lawyers for Republicans and Democrats line up to argue fate of the Legislature's two redistricting maps. Our advance story is here.

Right off the bat, the court's focus went to how it should handle its required review under the new constitutional standards approved by voters. Minutes into the oral arguments, Chief Justice Charles Canady asked the House's lawyer George Meros "what is the standards of review."

Meros repeated the House and Senate argument that the court's review must be extremely limited with the court leaving disputes over interpretations of the new constitutional standards to be settled by a trial court, where evidence and witnesses could be cross examined.

Justice Barbara Pariente, who is among three justices who served on the court through the last redistricting review in 2002, clearly disagreed. She began by commending the House and its map and the way it applied the standards established in the new constitutional amendments but said nothing about the Senate map:'

"I really appreciate the way the House went about the drawing of this map,'' Pariente said. "I think there is in the brief the recognition to the importance of these standards and actually adhering to the tier two standards."

Then Pariente suggested that the court must define the standards, such as compactness and retrogression, and determine if the Legislature appropriately applied those standards.

Canady quickly challenged that point of view. He countered that the court could not impose definitions and should give deference to the Legislature. "The reality is we can’t adjudicate fact intensive questions because this isn't a preceding where there have been any evidentiary hearing...We don't make determinations about facts in an appellate proceeding."

He added: "How could we possibly second-guess the legislative analysis about retrogression -- which in the federal case law is certainly acknowledge to be fact intensive."

Meros agreed. "It is absolutely impossible, your honor,'' he said, and suggested that the court decided that in 2002 and when it reviewed the constitutional amendments it should have warned voters if it thought they were legally unworkable. 

But Justices Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince raised doubts about whether the court should so strictly limit its review.

"I'm somewhat troubled that the court should not attempt to place any type of parameters to words,'' Lewis said. "…All of our core documents contain principle words…It seems to me the courts are going to have to place standards."

Quince asked that if the court was simply required to sign-off on the Legislature's maps, "what is the point of the Supreme Court review? ...What we have here if we...can't define standards, we can't determine any facts?"  

The oral arguments will continue for three hours.

Here's the line-up of legal firepower: Representing the Senate are lawyers from the Washington, D.C. firm Jones Day, former state representative and long-time Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist, Peter Dunbar and his partner Cynthia Tunnicuff and special counsel to the president Andy Bardos.

Representing the House is former Supreme Court Justice Charles Wells, and several other lawyers from the Gray Robinson law firm and former state Rep. Miguiel DeGrandy. Representing the Florida Democratic Party is former Federal District Court Judge Joseph Hatchett, attorneys from the Washington, D.C. firm of Perkins Coie, Jon Mills of the Miami firm of Bois, Schiller and Flexner. For the coalition, Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee-based lawyer, attorneys from the New York firm of Jenner and Block, and J. Gerald Hebert of Alexandra, Virginia.