In a stinging blow to opponents of the state’s anti-gerrymandering amendments, a federal court this week has thrown out a lawsuit filed by two Florida Republican Party officials who claimed the new law violated the constitution because it had a “chilling effect” on their free speech and petition rights.
Tim Norris, the Walton County Republican Executive Committee Chairman, and Randy Maggard, the Pasco County Republican Executive Committee Chairman, sued Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner in August, demanding that he not enforce the Fair Districts provisions of the state constitution.
They made the argument being echoed by many lawmakers that their speech is chilled because, as members of a political party, it will be used to invalidate a map. Hoping to find a venue that was most favorable to them, they filed the case in the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola.
But in a 16-page opinion, the chief judge of the district, Judge M. Casey Rodgers, who was appointed by George W. Bush, rejected their argument and dismissed the case.
“The problem with Plaintiffs’ position is that they have not shown that their speech or conduct is prohibited or even ‘arguably forbidden’ by the Fair Districts Amendments on their face or as applied,” Rodgers wrote.
She concluded that the amendments added to the Florida Constitution in 2010 were directed at the Florida Legislature, “no one else,” and there has been no barrier to citizen political speech but added, “Plaintiffs have no First Amendment right to a partisan map.”
The ruling is the latest in a string of successes for the proponents of the Fair Districts amendments.
The court noted that the emails of the political operatives were sought as “a result of the Legislature’s failure to operate transparently in the redistricting process, as required by Florida’s strong public policy.” When lawmakers destroyed draft redistricting maps, emails and other records when drawing the congressional maps in 2012, that “left the challengers no means of determining legislative intent absent discovering the communications through a lawful legal process,” she wrote.
She added in a footnote: “The trial court found that the circumstantial evidence as a whole led to an unmistakable conclusion that political consultants from one party had ‘managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.’ Nonetheless, no political consultant was sued or punished.”
Rodgers concluded: “Because no citizen conduct is prohibited or threatened under the Amendments as interpreted, there is no objectively reasonable basis for self censorship, and Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate an injury for purposes of standing ... Only improper partisan intent by the Legislature is forbidden and will invalidate the maps, not the partisan speech of citizens.”
The case is one of two challenges pending before the federal court in the Northern District. A second case, brought by a group of Alachua-based Republicans who call themselves the “Conservative Coalition for Free Speech and Association,” is also a suit against Detzner in an attempt to invalidate the Fair Districts amendments. Several members of the group have fought the release of their private emails in pending redistricting lawsuits.
Florida legislators convene a three-week special session beginning Monday to redraw the state Senate map after a July ruling by the Florida Supreme Court determined that the process lawmakers used in 2012 was infiltrated by political operatives and rife with “improper partisan intent.”
After a circuit court judge recommended a replacement map for congressional districts last week, the Florida Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on that plan for Nov. 2.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and at 850-222-3095. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas