TALLAHASSEE — With the election clock ticking, a Florida circuit court judge said Wednesday he will decide quickly on whether to throw out the Legislature's congressional redistricting map, develop a new map in a matter of weeks or leave it alone.
"I am very much aware of the logistical problem we have,'' said Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit, referring to the prospect of invalidating all or part of the congressional map and creating a new one in time for candidates to qualify to run in June.
Lewis must not only consider the impact of revising the districts in the midst of election season, but must navigate complex and conflicting arguments over racial politics in Florida.
Faced with an unprecedented assignment for a Florida circuit court judge, Lewis asked lawyers about the redistricting software he might use, the kinds of data that would be available and suggested that there is a downside to conducting an expedited trial that results in the court taking control of the Legislature's work product.
But after six hours of hearings in which lawyers for opponents asked him to reject the map and lawyers for legislators urged him approve it, he announced: "I'm going to treat it seriously. I'm going to do the best I can as quick as I can and I'm going to address everybody's arguments."
At issue is the congressional redistricting map passed by legislators in February and whether it respects the political and geographic boundaries, creates districts as compactly as possible, and properly protects the voting rights of minorities.
A group of citizens, the Florida Democratic Party and the Fair Districts coalition have sued to invalidate the map. They allege it violates the new anti-gerrymandering standards imposed by voters in 2010.
Their most racially charged allegation is that the Republican map illegally packs Democrats into districts to bleach the adjacent districts and make them elect more Republicans. They argue that the black districts should include fewer Democrats, thereby spreading out their voting strength and making the adjacent districts more competitive.
It is an argument opposed not only by lawyers for the Republican-led Legislature but also by the NAACP, whose lawyers argue that the Democrats' plan to reduce the number of black voters in traditionally black districts fails to take into account the racial polarization that occurs when white voters — regardless of party — won't vote for a black lawmaker.
George Meros, a lawyer with the GrayRobinson law firm hired to represent the Florida House, told the court that the congressional map was the product of a delicate balance lawmakers made in protecting minority voting rights while also complying with the new Fair District standards.
He condemned the alternative maps proposed by the Democrats and voters groups as illegally designed to elect white Democrats.
"They are trying to go back to a darker time in our past and have African-Americans submerged in white districts,'' he said.
Marc Elias, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Perkins Coie, representing the Florida Democratic Party, argued that the congressional map is full of the same flaws as the Senate legislative map rejected by the Florida Supreme Court's in its 5-2 opinion last month. He said the court should follow the Supreme Court's "road map" to reject the plan because it unconstitutionally protects incumbents.
He said that the map was built on the 2002 map, which did not have to adhere to the anti-incumbency protections and was "a pretty good gerrymander." For example, Democrat Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 but Republican John McCain won 15 of 25 congressional districts. In 2012, when Florida gained two new seats because of its growth in population this time, both new seats went to Republicans under the new congressional map.
"The fact is, we started with a gerrymandered plan and we continue in 2012 with a Republican gerrymandered plan,'' he said.
If the Legislature's 2012 map is left in place "even for one election, it will have reverberations that will be unfortunate,'' said Paul Smith, the lawyer representing the voters coalition.
Lewis expressed some reluctance to take on the task of rewriting the map himself.
"What if I did it, and I was wrong and by the time the case got to the district court of appeals, the election would be run with unconstitutional maps?'' he asked.
Elias said that would be a better option than relying on the legislative plan. "Either we risk running an election under a judicially drafted fair map and could get it wrong, or we run in an unconstitutional plan,'' he said.
Congressional candidates must decide by June 8 if they are going to run in the 27 races for Congress and elections officials warned Wednesday that rejecting the map could lead to "uncertainty and confusion."
"It would be nearly impossible to have an enforced congressional map in place before candidate qualifying in early June,'' said Daniel Norby, general counsel to the secretary of state.