GOP-led Legislature won't appeal Congressional district ruling

Matt Dixon | News Service of Florida | 07/15/2014

TALLAHASSEE - The Republican-led Legislature won’t appeal a ruling that last week found two newly drawn Florida congressional districts unconstitutional.

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled two Central Florida districts were unconstitutional after a 13-day trial that featured testimony from top legislative leaders, redistricting staff and top GOP political consultants.

Plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, said maps drawn during the 2012 redistricting process favored Republicans.

In a joint statement Tuesday, House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville said they’ve formally asked Lewis to keep the current map, though unconstitutional, in place through the 2014 midterm elections. The duo argued it’s too late to upend the current maps, with the primary set for Aug. 26.

“According to federal law, over 63,000 Florida military and overseas voters are already casting absentee ballots based on the current Congressional map,” the statement read.

They also pointed to the fact that absentee ballots will be sent to hundreds of thousands of in- state voters starting next week.

“Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters,” the two wrote.

On Monday, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking Lewis to hold a hearing quickly to decide how to move forward because “time is of the essence” with the 2014 elections approaching.

The groups challenging the congressional map declined to comment Tuesday, awaiting a decision from their legal team about how to respond to the legislative leaders’ request.

The decision not to appeal was applauded by some Democrats.

“I think it is good; over the past decade or so we seem to be the most litigious Legislature in the history of mankind,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “I think for once common sense set in and we are going to go ahead and fix things.”

Incoming House Minority Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said it offers an “opportunity to get the map right.”

The two districts in question are held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Dan Webster, an Orlando Republican. Brown’s seat is a winding district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, and has long been held as a poster child for gerrymandering, or the manipulation of a seat to favor a political party.

Plaintiffs argued that map-drawers placed additional black voters in the district served by Brown, who is black, as a way to make surrounding districts more Republican.

The decision not to appeal means that the lawmakers will have to draw new congressional maps. Though only two districts were tossed by Lewis, any changes to those seats will have ripple effects on bordering districts.

In his ruling issued last Thursday, Lewis agreed with the plaintiffs that redistricting staff worked with outside political consultants to create a “shadow redistricting process.”

The timeline moving forward isn’t yet clear, but much of the decision will hinge on whether Lewis agrees the current maps can remain through November’s election. If that’s the case, the Legislature can begin redrawing the maps after the midterm elections.

At that point, the timeline could be driven by who wins the governor’s race. If Democrat Charlie Crist wins, it likely would mean the Republican-led Legislature would want to complete the map- drawing process prior to the new governor being sworn into office in early January.

That would allow Republican Gov. Rick Scott to sign the new congressional maps into law even if he loses his re-election bid.

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