The end of April traditionally marks the end of the busy season in South Florida, with spring break and holidays over, snow birds returning north, traffic easing, and lower summer rates kicking in. So I guess it’s fitting that our appellate courts last week issued a slew of decisions bringing closure to quite a few unsettled legal issues as well.
Most prominent among them was the decision released by the Supreme Court of Florida last Friday that finally put to rest a battle that had commanded the better part of the Supreme Court’s attention over the past few months — namely, the fight over whether the Florida Senate’s post-census plan for allocating state senate districts complied with Amendment 5, a/k/a the Fair Districts Amendment to the Florida Constitution, enacted by voter initiative in 2010. The upshot was that the Supreme Court concluded the review mandated by Article III, section 16 of the Florida Constitution, by declaring that the plan (as modified in response to the Court’s March 9, 2012 decision) was Constitutionally valid. By doing so, the Court avoided taking the unprecedented step of taking the redistricting process out of the legislature’s hands and writing its own plan.
Last week’s decision unquestionably brought closure to the redistricting process, and the initial challenges to the 2012 legislative redistricting (with the Court even prohibiting motions for rehearing). But it may not bring closure in the larger sense of foreclosing other challenges to the redistricting plans based on the Fair Districts Amendment through separate lawsuits.
The overarching issue in the case from the outset was whether the Court would entertain a full scale challenge to the plans in the course of its mandatory review, which can last for no more than 30 days, and in which no evidentiary record can be built in a trial court for it to work from, or would instead limit its review to “facial” challenges only, as it had in the past. And correspondingly, would the Court’s review of the challenges at this stage, by way of res judicata and/or stare decisis, preclude challenges to the districts that might be pursued in separate litigation, or as was true of the Court’s initial review of redistricting plans before the Fair District Amendments, would the declaratory judgment leave open the possibility of separate challenges?
On the one hand, in its March decision, the Court made clear that the Fair Districts Amendment required, and it was willing to undertake, a more probing review than it had deemed appropriate when reviewing previous redistricting plans. In fact, the March decision was the first time ever that the Court invalidated a redistricting plan, at least in part.
On the other hand, in its April decision, the Court seems to have gone out of its way to point out that its review was only “facial” and that its conclusion was that “the opponents have failed to satisfy their burden of demonstrating any constitutional violation in this facial review.” In declining to consider challenges to certain aspects of the revised plan that could have been made against the original plan, but were not, the Court engaged in a lengthy explanation that the reason it was declining to do so was that it would be unfair at that stage of the game. And in what seems like an unnecessary tangent, the Court expreslly stated not only that the new arguments themselves were not barred by res judicata, but that the Court’s review of redistricting plans under its Article III, section 16 duties, is not the type of proceeding that can have res judicata effect. In other words, if opponents of the redistricting plans are looking to challenge them in a separate lawsuit, the the Supreme Court’s decision is unlikely to get in their way.
So while the decision undoubtedly brings closure to the Court’s Constitutional review of the redistricting plans, and the redistricting process itself, it’s probably premature to see it as bringing closure to the larger battle over redistricting.