TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge on Friday ordered legislators to draw up a new congressional map for the state after the old one was ruled to be illegal.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wants the new map by Aug. 15, meaning that legislators would have to hold a special session over the next two weeks in order to comply with the decision. Lewis said he will then consider whether to order a special election later this year under this new map.
The ruling was hailed by the groups that challenged the state's current districts as unconstitutional. But it's not known yet if the Florida Legislature will comply or whether the decision will trigger another round of legal challenges. Florida's primary election is Aug. 26.
Representatives for House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz both said on Friday said they were "reviewing" the decision.
Voters in 2010 passed the "Fair Districts" amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party. Lewis ruled in early July that two of the state's 27 districts were drawn illegally to benefit the Republican Party.
But that decision sparked a legal battle over what steps to take next.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and the groups that sued the Legislature asked Lewis to adopt a new map and adjust this year's election schedule. But legislative leaders said the state's current districts should be kept in place to avoid disrupting the 2014 elections. They also contended only the Legislature has the authority to draw new districts.
In his ruling, Lewis said he found the arguments from legislative lawyers "more sensible" and agreed that the Legislature should be responsible for the new map.
But he said he could not push off a new map until 2016. Lewis said to do so would be telling voters "they have been deprived of the equal right of having a say in who represents their interests in Congress for two years."
The judge said that after further research and evidence it could wind up that a new map is "not legally authorized or logistically practicable. But I am not there yet..."
Lewis's decision brought a combination of praise and condemnation.
"This is a champagne moment for Florida voters, who have waited too long for fairly drawn congressional districts," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "We believe that the restoration of legitimate, representative democracy is well worth one extra trip to the polls."
But U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, whose sprawling district from Jacksonville to Orlando will need to be redrawn, said the decision by Lewis was "not in the best interest of Florida voters." Brown also said she remains concerned that a redrawn district will diminish the influence of minority voters. The majority of voters in Brown's current district are minorities.
The League and others contended that the Republican-controlled Legislature had used a "shadow" process that allowed GOP consultants to influence how the congressional districts were drawn. They asserted that Democrats were packed into Brown's district in order to make surrounding districts more favorable to Republicans.
Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that both Brown's district and the central Florida district that is home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican, were drawn in violation of the "Fair Districts" standards adopted by voters. Any efforts to redraw these two districts would likely result in changes to other districts in central Florida.
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