TALLAHASSEE — Florida's flawed congressional districts may remain in place for two more years and newly drawn boundaries for seven north and central districts don't have to take effect until 2016, a Tallahassee circuit judge ruled late Friday.
Judge Terry Lewis upheld the revisions to the state's congressional map approved by the Florida Legislature during a three-day special session earlier this month. But he said the current configuration, which he ruled unconstitutional a month ago, could stand for the 2014 election.
"An election in 2015 is not a viable option,'' Lewis wrote in his four-page order. "The 2014 elections will have to be held under the map as enacted in 2012.
That will come as a relief to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, whose congressional districts were the target of the court's criticism. Brown and Webster feared being elected to a new term in November only to have to face a special election possibly next year under the newly configured boundaries.
Lewis ruled on July 10 that congressional districts 5 and 10 violated the state's Fair District rules against political gerrymandering. He then gave legislators until Aug. 15 to modify the map and fix two districts in particular. Lawmakers responded by calling a rare summertime special session and modified seven of the state's 27 districts, then appealed to the court to approve it.
Although the judge validated the Legislature's map, the fight is not over.
David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters, one of the groups that challenged the districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature, said they were disappointed in the ruling and will appeal.
Anticipating a protracted dispute, Webster recently set up a legal defense fund to help him finance any court fights that may emerge over his district.
Lewis wrote that he disagreed with the voters coalition that argued the changes made to the original map were superficial and did not cure the flaws to Districts 5 and 10. He concluded that the Legislature's "remedial plan adequately addresses the constitutional deficiencies I found in the Final Judgment."
He also rejected calls from the plaintiffs to create an east-west minority district that would stretch across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. They argued it would allow minority voters to elect two African-Americans to Congress instead of one. But, under the plan, Brown's district would be dismantled and a new Orlando-based minority district would emerge as a coalition district for both Hispanics and African-American voters.
"The Legislature is not required, however, to produce a map that the Plaintiffs, or I , or anyone else might prefer,'' Lewis wrote. "The Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution."
He noted that the plaintiffs "have not offered convincing evidence that an East-West configuration is necessary in order to comply" with the terms of the Fair Districts amendment approved by voters in 2010.
Lewis also rejected calls for a special session to implement the new map. He said that the plaintiffs "offered absolutely no evidence" to support their arguments that a special election could reasonably be held in time for the 2014 elections and thereby allowed the invalidated districts to remain in place until 2016.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was thrilled with the ruling and even sounded happy the Legislature got a do-over.
"I am pleased with Judge Lewis' speedy, thoughtful and conscientious decision,'' he said in a statement. "I am especially relieved that our overseas military voters and those Floridians who cast their ballots early will have their votes counted this election. You know, sometimes life affords you second chances; I am glad we got it right on the second round."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com