TALLAHASSEE - After lawmakers failed last month to agree on a congressional redistricting plan, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday sent the issue back to a circuit judge who will try to piece together a map that meets constitutional requirements.
The Supreme Court left open the possibility that the Legislature could still hold another session and redraw districts. But it also made clear it won't wait long, giving Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis until Oct. 17 to handle the case - and refusing a House request for more time.
"Sufficient time exists for the Legislature to accomplish this task before the matter is scheduled for a hearing before the trial court, should the House and Senate agree to convene for another special session,'' Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a concurring opinion Friday. "However, if the two houses of the Legislature cannot join together to pass a plan within this time, the judiciary must take steps to ensure that a constitutionally compliant congressional redistricting plan is in place …to provide certainty to candidates and voters."
Friday's order came nearly two months after the Supreme Court ruled that eight current congressional districts violate the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by voters in 2010. The ruling came in a case filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and other plaintiffs.
In its July ruling, the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to hold a special session to redraw the districts to comply with the constitutional standards. But the House and Senate could not agree on a map during an August session, tossing the issue back to the courts.
Lewis, who has long overseen litigation about the congressional districts, said late last month that he needed guidance from the Supreme Court about how to proceed.
Under Friday's order, Lewis will hold a hearing and consider maps proposed by the House and Senate. He then will make a recommendation by Oct. 17 to the Supreme Court about which map - or which portions of maps - meet constitutional requirements.
After the Supreme Court order, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called for the Legislature to try again to redraw the map.
"This decision has not precluded the opportunity for the House and Senate to draw a map, and each chamber should take advantage of the ample time to address the differences between our respective plans," Gardiner said in a prepared statement.
"As we have expressed since the conclusion of the special session, the Senate is willing to reconvene to fulfill our constitutional obligation."
But House leaders have been skeptical about the chances that another special session would lead to agreement. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said in a release Friday that the Supreme Court ruling provides "a measure of certainty for how we may go forward to adopt a constitutional congressional map, as the voters expect from us."
The Merritt Island Republican added, "We look forward to further reviewing the order to determine our next steps."
With the failure of the August special session, House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the "Legislature's role is likely relegated to acting as a party to a lawsuit rather than as the deliberative body it should be."
"The court's order today makes clear the justices are merely picking up the slack created by the abdication of the Legislature and recognize their involvement is only a last resort," Pafford said in a prepared statement.
The Supreme Court order rejected an argument by the voting-rights groups that justices should adopt a map without sending the case back to Lewis.
Nevertheless, David King, an attorney for the groups, issued a statement saying they "appreciate the Florida Supreme Court's guidance and look forward to appearing before Judge Lewis to ensure that Florida's citizens have a constitutionally compliant congressional map for 2016."
Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry fully concurred in Friday's decision. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed with sending the case back to Lewis but took issue with other parts of the order.
Canady, in an opinion joined by Polston, wrote that he disagreed with the majority's refusal to go along with the House's request for more time. He also disagreed with the majority's refusal to allow additional evidence-gathering through the legal process known as "discovery."
Lewis, meanwhile, wrote that he did not "agree that this (Supreme) Court should be attempting to micromanage the trial court proceedings by directives that specify any special focus upon any particular item of evidence. This is an action pending in the court below and that court should consider evidence from the parties, as in any other legal action, and base a decision on that evidence without an improper instruction that directs the focus on only one particular item of evidence."