Florida judge approves new congressional districts; says they will take effect in 2016

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A Florida judge on Friday gave a victory to the state's Republican-controlled Legislature, rendering a decision that effectively forces voters to choose candidates in November based on a congressional map that he ruled was invalid because it favored the GOP.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis approved a new congressional map that been swiftly adopted earlier this month during a special session. But he agreed with attorneys for the Legislature that there was no time to implement the new map before voters head to the polls this year. Florida's primary is next Tuesday.

David King, an attorney for the groups that sued the Legislature over the district boundaries, said they were disappointed with the decision and planned to appeal the ruling. The groups had been heartened by the judge's July ruling invalidating the 2012 map, but said the redrawn map offered little more than cosmetic changes and was still unconstitutional. They had hoped the judge would either adopt a map proposed by them or draw up one on his own.

Voters in 2010 passed the "Fair Districts" amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering. The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups that sued contended GOP consultants used a "shadow" process in 2012 to draw districts that benefited Republicans and violated the new standards.

Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that consultants helped manipulate the process and ruled that two districts were invalid. The two districts flagged by Lewis were a sprawling district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

Legislators this month adopted a new map that alters seven of the state's existing 27 districts and shifts nearly 400,000 voters in central and north Florida. But the new map keeps intact to a large degree Brown's district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and at one point is no wider than a highway bridge. The map is not expected to make any significant changes to the makeup of Florida's congressional delegation, which is now split between 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Lewis conceded that the changes may not be perfect, but he said that lawmakers did enough to cure problems he had found with the existing district.

"The Legislature is not required, however, to produce a map that the plaintiffs, or I, or anyone else might prefer," Lewis wrote in his four-page ruling. "The Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution. My 'duty' is not to select the best plan, but rather to decide whether the one adopted by the Legislature is valid."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was pleased with Lewis' "speedy, thoughtful and conscientious decision."

"You know, sometimes life affords you second chances; I am glad we got it right on the second round," Weatherford said in a statement.

When he ordered a new map, Lewis had left open the possibility that he could order a special election to implement it. But state and local election officials protested the idea, saying there was no practical way to hold special elections in the affected districts. They instead told Lewis that a new election could not be held until March and May of next year. Lewis said in his ruling that holding elections in 2015 was "not a viable option." He said the coalition did not present any evidence to show if a special election could be held this year.

Brown, who had been sharply critical of the effort to change her district, praised the judge for retaining the old congressional boundaries for this year's election.

"Making a last minute change to the 2014 maps would have not only been a logistical nightmare, but entirely unfair to the tens of thousands of Floridians who already cast a ballot either through early voting or through absentee/overseas ballot," Brown said in a statement. "Following today's ruling, the state of Florida and our citizens are now free to move forward with the democratic election process, and choose the best candidate of their choice to represent them."

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