The legal battle over the state's congressional districts was sent to Florida's highest court. (Photo by Gregory Moine)

The legal battle over the state’s congressional districts was sent to Florida’s highest court. (Photo by Gregory Moine.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

A divided state appeals court sent the the battle over Florida’s newly drawn congressional districts to the state Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

The News Service of Florida reports:

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, under 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.

“Certification … 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 past summer, groups and lawmakers took part in a 12-day trial over whether GOP leaders in the Florida Legislature violated the law when redrawing congressional maps in 2012. This legal battle was launched by the Florida League of Women Voters and a group of individuals who allege the Florida Legislature violated the 2010 Fair Districts Amendments, which mandates that Congressional districts cannot be drawn to favor one party over the other.

At trial, the state legislators were found to have broken the law, and a judged ordered them to redraw certain districts as a result. During a special session, lawmakers then created new maps — which the same plaintiffs are challenging now, too.

In addition to forcing legislators to redraw some districts, the trial also exposed the backroom deals that were going on while the maps were drawn.

But not every secret was revealed. For one, some important documents — including maps and emails from GOP political consultants — were hidden from the public. The plaintiffs in the case sued to have those documents produced, but the appeals court ruled that they can be part of the trial proceedings, but only if the public and media are dismissed from the courtroom when the records are under review. So, during a part of the trial, the courtroom was emptied and the cameras were turned off as the judge looked over the secret documents.

The legal dispute over whether those documents should now be made public is also before the Florida Supreme Court.