Court battle over Florida map continues as sides in legal tussle hold acrimonious hearing

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A Florida judge is once again considering what to do in the next round of a lengthy and partisan-tinged battle over Florida's congressional districts.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis held a three-hour hearing Wednesday over whether to approve a new map swiftly passed earlier this month by the Florida Legislature. Legislators approved the map after Lewis in July ruled that the state's current congressional map was illegally drawn to benefit Republicans in elections.

Lewis gave no indication when he would rule, saying only he would act quickly.

The hearing itself featured a rehash of some of the same arguments heard during a previous trial on the district makeup. But this time the partisan acrimony was on much more vivid display as each side accused the other of pushing a new congressional map designed to benefit either Republicans or Democrats at the expense of minority voters.

The focus of much of the hearing was on the sprawling district held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando. Legislators altered seven of 27 districts in north and central Florida including Brown's district.

The coalition of groups that sued the Legislature contends Lewis should toss the revised version because it makes cosmetic changes. They still assert Democrats remain packed into the district in order to help adjacent GOP districts. As an alternative, the groups propose shifting Brown's district to one that stretches across North Florida.

Attorney David King, who represents the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups, argued that the shift would actually make it more likely that a minority would also win a central Florida congressional seat. He said that legislators drew a new map to protect "Republican interests."

"They never tried, they never considered any other alternative because the intent we established in the last trial is alive and well in the Florida Legislature," King told the judge.

But George Meros, an attorney for the Florida House, argued legislators need to keep Brown's district running from north to south to ensure that blacks continue to have a chance to elect someone to Congress. The federal Voting Rights Act bars states from diluting the voting strength of minorities.

Meros said the goal of the groups who sued was to make it easier to elect white Democrats. He said that racial discrimination remains a problem in northeast Florida counties such as Alachua and Marion.

Meros, citing that national Democratic groups have paid part of the legal fees in the case, said "It's OK you may not be able to elect a black, but you'll get a white Democrat to support you. And that's wrong...It takes us to a dark day."

Allison Riggs, a lawyer representing the Florida branch of the NAACP, backed the Legislature.

"This isn't a game of limbo -- how low can you go with the black voting-age population in order to distribute black voters into Democratic districts," Riggs said. "That is the kind of gamesmanship the Florida NAACP is trying to avoid."

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 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 Brown's district and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

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