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    Court okays state legislative districts map

    The Supreme Court says the districts pass the applicable tests. Map foes vow to continue the battle.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 4, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Republican lawmakers burst into applause Friday when they got the news: The Florida Supreme Court upheld the Legislature's new map of state House and Senate districts.

    In a 5-0 decision, justices dismissed arguments by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Common Cause and other critics that lawmakers failed to adopt objective standards to guide the remapping of districts and drew bizarrely shaped districts for partisan gain. The map seeks to strengthen the Republicans' grip on both houses.

    "We conclude that the Legislature has complied with the requirements set forth by the federal and state constitutions," Chief Justice Charles Wells wrote.

    Wells said those requirements include the equal protection standard of "one person, one vote," contiguous districts and no discrimination against racial minorities or political groups.

    The map still must be approved by the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Senate lawyer Jim Scott said Friday's state court opinion would bolster chances for federal approval.

    In approving the map, the justices said the state Constitution allows them an "extremely limited" review and just 30 days to do it. They urged people with claims of racial discrimination or political gerrymandering to pursue those in other courts.

    Democrats said they may try to do just that by advancing a new line of legal attack before a three-judge federal panel.

    "We'll see you in court," House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, told Republicans on the House floor. Other opponents included the cities of Temple Terrace, Ocala, Bonita Springs and Pembroke Pines as well as Lee, Marion and Franklin counties.

    "There are half a dozen lawyers on the House payroll that would be very disappointed if this is the last bottle of champagne they can enjoy," said House Speaker Tom Feeney.

    In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Fred Lewis singled out the new Senate District 27, stretching from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers, as "strikingly odd-shaped," with four separate fragments of land and their far-flung populations joined by Lake Okeechobee.

    Lewis added that the court's 1992 opinion that upheld the last legislative reapportionment found that a district is "contiguous" even if it is necessary to leave it to reach other parts of it.

    Two justices did not participate in the case. Justice Peggy Quince was ill and missed the oral arguments. Justice Barbara Pariente recused herself.

    Common Cause predicted that as people become more familiar with their new districts and representatives, they will feel more isolated from the Legislature.

    "It adds to the sense of disenfranchisement that people feel with their elected officials," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida. "I think people feel they're being manipulated by the Legislature."

    For legislative leaders, the reaction was relief as much as joy.

    They have been in session with only a few brief interruptions since mid-January and are now in the fourth special session since October. The court's opinion means they aren't facing another session to redraw legislative districts.

    "That's one less special session we'll have to have," said Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton.

    -- Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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