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Judge says he needs guidance on redistricting standoff

The Florida Supreme Court will now decide the best way to resolve the impasse over Florida's redistricting maps, after a trial judge said Tuesday he "has no authority" to resolve the dispute between the House and Senate.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis held a six-minute hearing in his Tallahassee courtroom and told lawyers that the Supreme Court "didn't give me a lot of discretion" when it ordered him to review a map passed by lawmakers in special session.

Lewis said he will report to the high court that lawmakers ended the session in gridlock on Friday and will "ask them what they want me to do."

He will tell the court that, "unfortunately, we're in a process that even though the Senate believes it can get something done, the House says I don't think we can."

The Senate filed a motion Monday asking the Florida Supreme Court to relinquish jurisdiction of the case to allow Lewis to conduct a hearing to decide whether the proposed Senate map or the House map was better.

The House responded Tuesday, arguing that Lewis already had that authority but, if the court disagreed, they would also support allowing Lewis to step in and decide which map is better.

Meanwhile, David King, an Orlando lawyer representing the plaintiffs who successfully challenged Florida's congressional district map, told Lewis that because of the Legislature's stalemate, "the Supreme Court may elect to deal with it themselves."

"It seems very apparent to us that the Legislature is at loggerheads,'' he said. "The House says we might as well proceed in a judicially adopted plan because they don't anticipate there is going to be a map. The Senate is kind of wishing and hoping but there is no evidence that suggests that there is going to be any special session in time to deal with the problems that are paramount for the voters and citizens of Florida -- which is being ready for an election in 2016."

The Plaintiffs -- a coalition representing the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and a group of Democrat-leaning voters -- sued the state in 2012 for violating the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution.

After months of delay over documents and discovery, the case went to trial in May 2014. Lewis then ordered legislators to redraw parts of the map and keep the original lines in place for the 2014 elections.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the redrawn map in July, saying the GOP-led Legislature illegally intended to protect incumbents and partisans in violation of the Fair Districts amendments. The historic 5-2 ruling included the unusual order that the court (Lewis) would retain jurisdiction over the case in an effort to expedite new boundary lines in time for the 2016 elections.

Representing the Senate, former Supreme Court Justice Rauol Cantero told Lewis Tuesday that the Senate wants another special session to "hammer out" another map. "It's the preferred result to have the Legislature draw the map,'' he said.

But George Meros, attorney for the Florida House, said that while "the House is certainly willing to continue to engage with the Senate to see if we can come up with an enacted map," it believes that time is "of the essence so we don't see a clear path to that."

After the hearing, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, said he was encouraged by Meros' comments and hopes they were a signal that the House is prepared to return in special session "to see if there's a compromise map that would put us somewhere in the middle."

But the House quickly dashed those hopes when House deputy chief of staff Ryan Smith sent out a statement saying another session on the congressional maps was not happening.

"Because the Court established a very tight timeframe, and given the small difference between the two maps is because of a differing legal opinion, we think presenting the House map to the Court is the best way to proceed,'' Smith said. "We would prefer to pass a map with the Florida Senate, but they have been unyielding on their position."

Galvano acknowledged that court anticipated this could happen when it set the deadline of 100 days for the Legislature to complete a map and get the trial court's approval.

"We're the Legislature. It's not always smooth, it's not always easy and this year is a good example of that,'' he said.

While the House and Senate have attempted to limit the court's review to the maps proposed by lawmakers, King said that the plaintiffs have different ideas, particularly in Miami Dade County.

"They may have that in mind but we'll be offering a map that will be a little different in certain districts, not a lot,'' he said.

Specifically, the plaintiffs want to see a change to the legislature's proposal to shift shifted 35,000 black voters from Congressional District 26 held by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo into Congressional District 27, held by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Both are Republicans but plaintiffs claim the change was intended to boost the re-election chances of Curbelo, a freshman.