Judge Lewis skeptical of fixing district maps now

Brandon Larrabee | News Service of Florida | 07/25/2014

A Leon County judge said Thursday he would try to rule by the end of next week on whether the state’s congressional districts have to be redrawn before the November elections.

At the same time, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis seemed hesitant to delay the state’s congressional elections while he crafts his own version of the map — something voting-rights groups have asked him to do. Lewis ruled earlier this month that a version of the districts approved by the Legislature in 2012 violated the Florida Constitution.

“I have to tell you, I’m extremely skeptical that I can do what the plaintiffs want me to do,” Lewis said near the conclusion of an almost three-hour hearing.

So far, the Legislature has declined to appeal Lewis’ ruling, and the state’s attorneys say lawmakers will redraw the map in time for the 2016 elections. But lawyers for the voting-rights groups and voters who sued to overturn the map under the Constitution’s anti-gerrymandering standards say that’s too late.

“The other side has an amazing tolerance for the fact that 18,800,000 Floridians are facing an election with an unconstitutional map,” said David King, a lawyer for the organizations. “They don’t seem to care very much about that.”

The state and supervisors of election argue that trying to overhaul the map now would cause chaos in November. The deadline for mailing absentee ballots to overseas members of the armed forces has already passed, and some soldiers have returned their votes. And attorneys for the state argue that Lewis, a state judge, doesn’t have the authority to reschedule a federal election.

“The fundamental problem is, we could have a new map tomorrow, and we still don’t have time to make it for this election, because people have already returned their ballots and voted,” said Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice representing the Senate in the case.

Lewis threw out the map based on the districts of Republican Congressman Dan Webster and Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown.

Brown’s district, which winds from Jacksonville to Orlando, drawing in enclaves of black voters along the way, is often criticized as one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.

During the hearing, opponents of the map continued pushing in particular for a dramatically redrawn Congressional District 5, which Brown represents. Voting-rights organizations have submitted a map that would instead have the district go from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west.

“It is critical that that bizarrely shaped District 5 does not survive this process,” King told Lewis. He argued that if the Legislature only tweaks the boundaries of the seat, “we might be faced with that district in perpetuity.”

But George Meros, a lawyer for the state, argued that the plaintiffs’ real goal was not to come up with a fairer map, but to move Democratic-leaning voters in north-central Florida into surrounding Republican districts, which would also have to be redrawn if District 5 was unwound.

All congressional districts must have roughly equal populations.

“What they want to do by way of these wonderful remedies that no one has seen is ... to blow up CD 5 and to distribute tens of thousands of African-Americans into white Democratic districts — an obvious intent to favor the Democratic Party,” Meros said.

Brown also issued a statement decrying the groups’ attempt to redraw her district.

“I firmly believe that the lawsuit concerning the Florida congressional district maps is, in reality, part of a bigger movement to diminish congressional districts represented by minorities across the nation,” she said. “And the plan is that if they are successful in Florida, they will continue to attack minority seats and minority voting rights in every state throughout the nation.”

Both sides indicated they would consider an appeal of Lewis’ ruling about how to fix the map depending on what he decides.

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