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Florida judge upholds new U.S. House map, but it won’t be used until 2016

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s ruling clears the way for the state’s August 26 primary

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugTALLAHASSEE, Florida (CFP) — Just days before Florida’s primary, a state judge has approved a redrawn map for the state’s 27 congressional districts but delayed its implementation until the 2016 elections.

Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis

Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis

The August 22 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis clears the way for the August 26 primary to proceed without the possibility of a special election later in the year under the redrawn map.

The ruling was a victory for the leadership of the GOP-controlled legislature, who maintained that imposing the new map now would have wreaked havoc on the state’s electoral process.

“Thankfully, the court listened to supervisors of elections and the Secretary of State and rejected plaintiffs’ plan, which would have thrown the 2014 elections into chaos and could have resulted in our state being without congressional representation for weeks or even months,” said State Senate President Don Gaetz in a statement.

However, the groups that sued to strike down the map, including the League of Women Voters, say they will appeal the ruling, contending that the changes made by the legislature during a special session earlier in the month didn’t go far enough to fix the unconstitutional gerrymandering that prompted Lewis to strike down the original map.

Lewis ruled that the new map “adequately addresses the constitutional deficiencies” he found in the original map drawn after the 2010 Census.

While conceding that alternatives offered by the plaintiffs might be less gerrymandered, Lewis said the legislature isn’t required “to produce a map that the plaintiffs, or I, or anyone else might prefer.”

“The legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the constitution,” Lewis said. He also said the plaintiffs had failed to prove that using the new map this year was “legally and logistically doable.”

In July, Lewis ruled that two districts in northwestern and central Florida — the majority black 5th District and the Republican-leaning 10th District — violated two constitutional amendments Florida voters approved in 2010 designed to limit political gerrymandering.

Under the new rules, districts cannot be drawn to benefit any political party and must be geographically compact. However, the amendments left redistricting in the hands of legislators, rather than turning it over to an independent outside panel.

In the original map, the 5th District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep Corrine Brown, was a majority black district that meandered from Jacksonville over to Gainesville and then down to Orlando. At one point, it is the width of a highway. The 10th District, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, was anchored in central Florida west of Orlando but had an appendage that wrapped around Orlando to take in GOP voters to the east in Seminole County.

Lewis ruled that the map draw packed black voters into the 5th District to make surrounding districts more Republican and that the appendage was added to the 10th District to help Webster, both of which were unconstitutional.

In the new map, the 5th District still runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, but some black voters in the Orlando area were shifted to adjacent districts and some more rural areas were added south of Jacksonville to make the district geographically wider. The new district is 48 percent black. The new map also removed the appendage from Webster’s district.

Because House districts must have equal population, the changes to those two districts required slight changes in five surrounding districts in central Florida.

The League of Women Voters proposed a different map that would have the 5th District running due west from Jacksonville past Tallahassee — a change that would have required a wholesale revision of the map statewide.

A Democratic alternative rejected by the legislature didn’t as far as the plaintiff’s map, but it would have made the 7th and 10th districts more evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Although Florida is evenly divided politically, Republicans enjoy a 17-10 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, largely due to their control of the redistricting process. The new map is not expected to change the delegation’s partisan balance.

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