TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's Supreme Court handed a legal setback to the Legislature Thursday by giving a green light to a trial that challenges the redrawing of state Senate districts.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that blocking an ongoing lawsuit to state Senate districts would "undermine" the will of voters who adopted new standards for redistricting in 2010.
The Supreme Court last year initially rejected the Senate map -- but then approved a revised version during a 30-day review period.
Legislative lawyers argued the court's approval precluded any future lawsuits. But Thursday's ruling states the initial review was limited and did not include any facts or evidence.
State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a 46-year-old attorney whose last campaign was greatly affected by the redistricting, said the decision was news to him.
"I haven't read the opinion and as an attorney I like to read the opinion before I decide whether or not I concur," Galvano said via cell phone as he was about to board an airplane. "My first reaction is one of surprise because the court approved the redistricting map and they are, in some ways, ruling against their own map."
Galvano spent eight years in the House before filling an abbreviated two-year Senate term as a result of redistricting. Galvano has filed for re-election to a four-year term in 2014 and could end up serving a decade in the Senate.
He said redistricting complicated his state Senate campaign after eight years in the Florida House.
"When I began running, the district was completely different," Galvano said. "I was campaigning in Fort Myers and Polk County at one point. I was prepared to run however the lines were ultimately drawn."
The League of Women Voters of Florida Executive Director Jessica Lowe-Minor released the following statement applauding the decision: "When districts are manipulated, voters are disenfranchised. Today's ruling is an important step toward ensuring that the constitutional mandate for fair districts is enforced."
Lawmakers tried to thwart the challenge from the League of Women voters and other groups, who claim Senate Republicans redrew districts for partisan advantage in violation of voter-approved "fair districts" amendments to the Constitution.
The court ruling in favor of state law and its own precedents means the case will proceed in a circuit court in Tallahassee. The challenge, if successful, could greatly shake up the next round of Senate elections in 2014.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said last year's brief and compressed "facial" review of maps was not intended to be the last word on the issue as it had in previous redistricting challenges in 1972, 1982 and 1992.
"Our precedent remains clear that subsequent challenges based on factual evidence not considered or available in this court's initial 30-day review may be brought and argued in a court of competent jurisdiction," Pariente wrote. "These are the exact types of claims that must be subject to a fact-finder's scrutiny."
Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justice Charles Canady dissented.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chaired the Senate Reapportionment Committee that drew the maps, said he was disappointed in the ruling and stands by the maps, which he said are "compliant with Florida's Constitution [and] will ultimately be affirmed."
The ruling ensures costs to taxpayers to defend the 2012 redistricting maps will mount, as noted by Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice, who predicted "perhaps endless rounds of litigation."
The Supreme Court last year approved redrawing all 120 House districts, but found the new Senate map was "rife with indicators of improper intent" and violated standards that bar favoritism toward incumbents or parties, even in the way district numbers were assigned.
A redrawn Senate map won court approval, and senators were assigned district numbers in a random lottery-style drawing.
Democrats picked up two Senate seats in the 2012 elections and Republicans now hold 26 of 40 seats. But of 20 Senate seats up for grabs next year, 16 are held by Republicans and four by Democrats.
--Metro Editor Terry O'Connor of the Bradenton Herald contributed to this story.