TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A Florida judge said Thursday that he's "extremely skeptical" about changing the state's congressional districts before the 2014 elections.
During a three-hour hearing that included echoes of past Florida courtroom clashes over elections, lawyers argued over how soon a new congressional map should be drawn up.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis earlier this month threw out Florida's current congressional map, saying it is illegal because districts were drawn to benefit the Republican Party. State legislative leaders said they would accept the decision and not challenge it further.
But Lewis has yet to decide who should draw the new districts, or just as importantly, when they should be put in place.
That triggered a vigorous back-and-forth in his courtroom over which side was engaged in partisan behavior, or was harming voters.
Lawyers for the coalition that sued the Florida Legislature argued that lawmakers can't be trusted to put in districts that meet the "Fair Districts" amendments adopted by voters four years ago. They asked Lewis to adopt a remedial map they gave him this week and postpone the Aug. 26 primary election in order to put in the new districts in place.
Attorneys representing the state contended any changes now would spark chaos and confusion and pointed out that the groups want to cut short the amount of time military voters have to send in ballots from overseas. They also raised questions if Lewis has the ability to move around election dates set by state and federal law.
Lewis did not rule from the bench, saying instead he would make a final determination by the end of next week. But he also made it clear he was unsure about what he could do legally, and whether it was too late to make any changes now.
"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 hearing.
Attorneys for both sides made it clear that they may appeal, or even file a new lawsuit, depending on what the judge decides. John Devaney, an attorney representing some of the groups that sued the Legislature, said his organization may ask a federal court to intervene if Florida moves ahead with an election that relies on a map deemed unconstitutional.
In 2010, the state's voters adopted "Fair Districts" amendments to the state constitution saying legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that two districts violated the new standards. One is the sprawling territory stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando that's home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown. The other is a central Florida district that is home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.
The new map presented by the League and other groups would completely shift Brown's district to north Florida so that instead of running down the middle of the state it would stretch from Jacksonville all the way to Gadsden County just west of Tallahassee.