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Arguments on redrawing contested Florida districts will be heard next week

TALLAHASSEE — With time running out, the judge who invalidated Florida's congressional redistricting maps ordered a hearing for next Thursday to give voters groups one last chance to argue that the maps should be redrawn before the November elections.

In a 20-minute hearing on Thursday, lawyers for the Legislature, Florida's secretary of state and the associations of supervisors of elections told Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis that it is practically impossible to draw new districts in time to meet federal and state requirements for the election.

"At this point, absent some very novel, creative plan on your part, we just don't see how there is any possible way you could intervene … and have an election in newly created districts," said Ron Labasky, attorney for the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association.

Labasky said that overseas absentee ballots have already been mailed to voters for the Aug. 26 primary, and some have already been returned. Next week, thousands more absentee ballots are scheduled to go out to voters across the country, and changing the boundaries for congressional districts would require a delay in the primary.

"I'm not too sure how we back up and let somebody vote again," he said.

Florida legislative leaders filed a motion Tuesday agreeing to redraw the invalid map, but only if they can wait until after the 2014 election.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz argued that it would be impractical and disruptive to change the maps now, after ballots have already been distributed to military and overseas voters. They said the existing map should be used in 2014 "to ensure stability in the election process."

But David King, an attorney for the voters groups that filed suit two years ago accusing the Legislature of violating the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution, told the judge, "Our position is, there is still an opportunity to do this for the 2014 election.

"We've already had one election on an unconstitutional map in 2012," King said. "It's surprising the Legislature would say, 'On the one hand, you're right Judge Lewis, we're not going to appeal,' " but changing the maps should wait.

"What are they trying to do? Are they trying to take some creative approach to seeing if we can keep from a constitutional election occurring?" he said.

King asked the judge for time to present his argument in writing as to why Florida should not proceed with a congressional map deemed unconstitutional. Lewis agreed and set a hearing at 9 a.m. July 24 to let King make those arguments.

In his July 10 ruling, Lewis criticized the Legislature for allowing a shadow process run by political consultants to "infiltrate" the Legislature's redistricting process. He concluded that two districts — those held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden — were specifically drawn to benefit Republicans, in violation of the state Constitution.

Lewis ordered just two districts redrawn, but the change is likely to force modifications to surrounding districts, especially the one held by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.

Lewis said Thursday that he had not planned to be discussing how to remedy the invalid districts because "quite frankly, when I issued my order, I thought surely one side or the other would appeal."

He rejected claims by the plaintiffs that several districts violated the Fair Districts rule. The Legislature, rather than risk that a higher court find flaws in more than two districts, decided not to appeal.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

Arguments on redrawing contested Florida districts will be heard next week 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 8:31pm]
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