Judge declines to order immediate revisions to congressional district map

Bill Thompson | Ocala Star Banner | 07/24/2014

Apparently spiking the hopes of some voters’ rights groups, a Tallahassee judge on Thursday declined to order immediate revisions to the state’s congressional districts, which he had previously deemed unconstitutional.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis indicated that a decision to deal with the maps was forthcoming — a move, some observers of the case have said, that almost certainly would shift thousands of voters in Marion and Alachua counties into new districts.

Yet that order, the judge suggested, would not interfere with the 2014 elections, which are now underway.

“I have to tell you that I’m extremely skeptical I can do what the plaintiffs want me to do,” Lewis said at the end of the three-hour hearing, according to an Associated Press report.

The judge was referring to the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups that sued the Legislature, accusing the lawmakers of failing to draw the lines in accordance with a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2010.

Those groups were pushing for the judge to immediately change the boundaries, and they wanted Lewis to postpone the upcoming elections in order to do so.

Leaders in the Republican-led Legislature have said they prefer to wait until after the elections before tackling redistricting.

One reason: More than 1 million mail-in ballots for the Aug. 26 primary, including to troops overseas, have already been issued to Florida voters.

Locally, nearly 50,000 mail-in ballots had been sent, or were on the way, to voters in Marion and Alachua counties.

About 29,000 ballots were mailed to voters in Marion County on Tuesday, while roughly 20,000 were slated to be sent to Alachua voters by yesterday, according to elections officials in both counties.

The judge said his final ruling in the case could come by the end of next week, the AP reported.

The wire service also noted that both sides predicted an appeal, depending on which way Lewis rules.

The hearing provided U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, whose district has been proclaimed the one most ripe for revision, another opportunity to condemn the outcome.

“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,” the Jacksonville Democrat said in a statement issued by her office.

Lewis ruled earlier this month that the boundaries of Brown’s district and one represented by Republican Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, were illegal under the so-called Fair Districts amendment.

The amendment sought to create more compact districts to end the practice of gerrymandering.

The judge determined that lawmakers drew those districts to favor Republican candidates, at the behest of GOP political operatives.

Brown’s district weaves from Jacksonville to Orlando, encompassing southeastern Alachua and eastern Marion counties, while Webster’s spans an area west of Orlando that reaches to the Marion-Lake county line.

Drawing the maps two years ago, the Legislature pushed the black population within Brown’s 5th Congressional District to above 50 percent. Lawmakers said they did so to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

Historically, the black population in her district has hovered around 48 percent.

Lewis said in his ruling that he did not believe that help was necessary because Brown, who has served in Congress since 1993, had shown a minority could win in that district.

Rather, the judge wrote, the Legislature had carved the 5th District in order to aid a Republican in the neighboring 7th District, which is now represented by GOP Rep. John Mica.

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