Fla. judge orders new congressional map

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis
Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida

Florida’s congressional elections were thrown into chaos Friday as a Tallahassee court judge ordered the state Legislature to redraw the boundaries of two congressional districts by Aug. 15 and said he will consider calling a special election later this year for all districts affected by the change.

The ruling, by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, sent new tremors throughout a state accustomed to election-year confusion and came a day after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Gov. Rick Scott that he was carefully monitoring Florida’s compliance with federal election laws.

Last month, Lewis declared two of Florida’s 27 congressional districts invalid, ruling that the seats held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, were drawn to benefit Republicans and were in violation of the Fair District rules approved by voters in 2010.

The practical effect is that lawmakers must convene a special session in the next two weeks to meet the map-fixing deadline. Lewis would then decide when and if special elections would be held for the districts whose boundaries have been modified.

Candidates would then have to qualify again, election officials would have to modify precinct maps, and the costs of the elections could rise.

“It’s like jello — you don’t know where it all stands, but it certainly has explosive implications for Florida politics,’’ said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor and redistricting expert.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, indicated they will not be prepared to comment on the ruling until Monday, but the governor indicated that he wants lawmakers to redraw the map but will not call for a special session.

“The Legislature is reviewing what the court decided and the Legislature has the power to make their own decision about calling special session,” Scott said while campaigning Friday in St. Petersburg.

Lewis rejected arguments from the Republican-led Legislature that the flawed districts should stand for another two years, but he agreed that “there is just no way, legally or logistically, to put in place a new map, amend the various deadlines and have elections on November 4th as prescribed by Federal law.”

Lewis acknowledged that there is no easy solution to fixing the map that violates the state’s Fair Districts rules, but he suggested “it might be possible to push the general election date back to allow for a special election in 2014 for any affected districts.”

In his six-page ruling Friday, Lewis ordered the Legislature to modify the congressional map by noon Aug. 15 and he asked state elections officials to prepare a plan for a new election schedule at the same time. He then scheduled a hearing for Aug. 20 and said that a new map must be in place by Aug. 21.

Although the voters groups who challenged the congressional maps argued that the Legislature cannot be trusted to fix the maps, Lewis agreed with the lawyers for the House and Senate and said the Legislature should redraw the maps. But he wants it done quickly.

“The cure should not be worse for the patient than the illness,’’ Lewis wrote. “To develop a new map and hold a special election for some congressional representatives would cost more money, would place additional burdens on our election officials and might confuse some voters.

“On the other hand, to do nothing, when you could, means that you lessen the ability of many citizens to fairly elect representatives of their choice — which is the effect of political gerrymandered districts.”

Lewis also concluded “it is not an option to have a special election after the general election is held as I would no longer have jurisdiction over the matter.”

Lewis left open the possibility that he may ultimately agree with the Republican leaders that revising the election dates is not legal or practical but, he said, “I am not there yet.”

Brown, whose district was deemed invalid by Lewis, said the ruling “is certainly not in the best interests of Florida voters.”

Lewis concluded that Brown’s serpentine-shaped district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, was intended to benefit Republicans and could have been drawn to protect minority voters without dividing whole communities and packing Republicans into adjoining districts. Brown, who unsuccessfully sued to invalidate the Fair District law, disagrees.

“Overturning the current District 5 map ignores one of the central principles of redistricting: maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts,’’ she said a statement.

Republican leaders are considering whether they can ask the First District Court of Appeals to stay Lewis’ ruling and review it on appeal, or whether they can call a special session in time to approve a new map by the Aug. 15 deadline. Brown or Webster could also appeal the ruling in federal court.

Lewis urged Republican leaders to act swiftly.

“The Legislature has shown…that it is capable of adopting a remedial map very quickly when time is of the essence. Indeed, I would be surprised if its staff has not already prepared alternatives.”

The coalition of voters groups, led by the League of Women Voters, which filed the lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional map, was pleased with Lewis’ order.

“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. “Judge Lewis has laid out a path that will allow all Florida voters, for the first time in decades, to elect their representatives in fair and constitutional districts.”

Peter Butzin, chair of Common Cause Florida which also joined the lawsuit, said Lewis’ ruling “may create some logistical challenges, protecting Floridians’ right to select the representatives of their choice is a fundamental value that cannot be put off until next election.”

Ron Labasky, general counsel for the state’s 67 supervisors of elections, said he is urging them “to sit tight and don’t let your hair on fire” because things could change.

Labasky said a new map will have little impact on congressional districts south of Orlando but will affect districts in north and central Florida that adjoin Brown and Webster’s districts.

If a new map is drawn, he said, existing candidates may switch districts or “theoretically you may see some new candidates jumping in.’’