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Judge skeptical about fixing Florida's congressional maps now

TALLAHASSEE — A coalition of voting-rights groups on Thursday urged a judge to redraw Florida's congressional map and push back the August primary — or risk having the election be invalid.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said he was "extremely skeptical" he could do what was asked.

"Logistically, it is going to be very difficult to get a map drawn within a reasonable amount of time," Lewis said, adding that he wasn't sure if he had the power to reconfigure the districts or delay federal elections.

He said he would rule on the matter next week.

Earlier this month, Lewis ruled that the current districts violate a provision in the state Constitution meant to prohibit partisan gerrymandering.

Legislative leaders did not appeal the decision. But they said fixing the map immediately would disrupt the election cycle already in progress, and asked to hold off on any changes until 2016.

The coalition — along with several left-leaning voters who also challenged the map — pressed the court to intervene.

"The choice is, do we proceed with an unconstitutional election or do we go through the admittedly challenging process of getting a new map in place?" said John Devaney, an attorney representing the individual voters. "The preference here is obviously not to have another unconstitutional election."

On Thursday, the two sides tussled over who would fix the map.

George Meros, an attorney for the Republican-led Florida House of Representatives, said the Legislature "fully intends" to draw new districts. The task would take only a few weeks, he added.

"On a clean slate, the Legislature can act promptly," Meros said.

But David King, the lead attorney for the voting-rights groups, said "allowing the folks that made a mockery of the process to redraw the maps (would add) insult to injury."

Instead, the coalition proposed its own map that would revamp U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown's district, one of two districts Lewis declared unconstitutional. The district currently runs from Jacksonville to Orlando. On the coalition's proposed map, it runs along the northeastern edge of the Panhandle.

"It is critical that that bizarrely shaped District 5 does not survive this process," King said.

The coalition's map also compresses the Central Florida district represented by U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden.

The plaintiffs' attorneys acknowledged that modifying the state congressional map would take time. But they said Lewis could push back the primary and general elections, or even hold a special election in March.

Attorneys for the Legislature argued that a delay would cause "chaos, confusion (and) uncertainty" because campaigns had begun and some ballots have been printed.

Meros raised specific concerns about members of the military serving abroad.

"There have been almost 2,000 votes that have already been cast by our soldiers overseas in this primary election," he said. "(The plaintiffs) want those votes to be wiped out."

Meros also called the coalition's map "illegal." He said it was a way to distribute black voters into white districts to benefit the Democratic Party.

"They are giving you alternatives that don't correct the two violations that were found," Meros said. "They blow up the map for political purposes."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Judge skeptical about fixing Florida's congressional maps now 07/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2014 9:10am]
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