By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida judge seeking to resolve a long-running legal dispute over the state's congressional districts on Friday sent the state Supreme Court a new map that breaks up the constituency of U.S. Representative Daniel Webster, a Republican vying to become speaker of the House.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis rejected the state legislature’s third attempt at drawing 27 realigned congressional districts under new requirements in the Florida Constitution forbidding partisan gerrymandering, such as consideration of incumbency or party affiliation.
The maps were redrawn after Lewis ruled last year that Republican leaders had conspired to rig the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington. Their 2012 maps "made a mockery" of anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state's constitution, he said.
Webster, who is running to replace retiring U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, has strongly opposed portions of the Central Florida redistricting that would make his Orlando-area district more Hispanic and increase its Democratic registration.
Lewis' map could also spell trouble for U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican, while opening the door in Tampa Bay to former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who is now a Democrat and has said he will run for a House seat if the judge's layout for the district is adopted.
Lewis considered seven alternative maps in a three-day hearing last month, finally settling upon a configuration submitted by a voter coalition that included the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and some mostly Democratic citizens. His recommendations now go to the high court, which will determine the state’s congressional boundaries.
Further appeals to the U.S. Justice Department, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and in federal courts could result in the 2016 congressional elections being conducted with Florida’s existing district lines.
The pending recommendation would also create a nearly 200-mile east-west district from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, in which minorities would constitute less than a majority of the population.
U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, has represented since 1992 a district with a mostly minority population. It extends south from Jacksonville to Orlando, but the state Supreme Court ordered it moved to an east-west configuration.
Brown, one of three black members of Congress from Florida, has sued in federal court, contending the realignment weakens black voting strength.
The redistricting also affects first-term Representative Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat who could wind up in a conservative district that extends from Panama City to Central Florida.
(Reporting by Bill Cotterell; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)