In Florida, a deadline to redraw voting map

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MIAMI — The Florida judge who ruled last month that two of the state’s congressional districts were illegally drawn to favor Republicans issued a new ruling Friday, this time admitting that he was unsure how to resolve the problem by November’s election.

Leon County Judge Terry P. Lewis gave the state Legislature two weeks to submit a new proposed congressional map to replace the gerrymandered boundaries of the 5th and 10th districts, which he had already ruled unconstitutional. Admitting that law and logistics could prove formidable obstacles, he postponed his decision on whether to delay the November 2014 general elections, putting the future of those congressional races and those closest to them in doubt.

His decision drew a strong rebuke from one of the House representatives whose district would be redrawn, who said the ruling and the movement to end gerrymandering was a deliberate attack on African-American representation. “I personally think that what the judge is recommending is illegal and needs to be dealt with,” Rep. Corrine Brown said in an interview. “What he is doing is throwing our state into chaos. I don’t support that.”

She added that she believed that Judge Lewis exceeded his power when he ordered the Legislature to return for a special summer session. Only the governor has authority to do that, she said.

Ms. Brown, a Democrat who is African-American, represents Florida’s 5th District, which snakes along nine counties from Orlando north to Jacksonville. The oddly shaped district, which is 50 percent black, exists, she said, because of red-lining and historic housing patterns that forced blacks to live in flood zones. But the district also came under attack because of the way it carved out Republican voters to other districts.

Critics argued that the boundaries violated a 2010 constitutional amendment passed by voters, which said districts should be compact and should not be drawn to favor any party over another. The League of Women Voters of Florida filed a lawsuit against the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers deliberately conspired to draw up district maps to favor themselves and their colleagues. When public hearings were held for citizens to comment on proposed boundaries, Republican Party operatives posed as unbiased citizens to discuss maps that had been drawn in secret, the judge found.

In a scathing opinion last month, Judge Lewis let several disputed districts stand but agreed that the 5th and 10th Districts in Central Florida “made a mockery” of Florida’s constitution. The league then asked him to appoint a special master to decide new maps by the end of the year and urged him not to allow the 2014 elections to take place under maps that he had declared invalid.

Florida legislators said they would not appeal but asked for any new map to take effect in 2016. They also questioned whether the judge had legal authority to move the election and make the changes. The judge acknowledged that they could be right. In the meantime, the judge ordered Florida’s secretary of state to come up with a proposed special election schedule, so he could consider delaying the election. He scheduled a hearing for Aug. 20 to hear both sides.

“Judge Lewis has shown that legislative violation of our constitution will not be tolerated, will have consequences, and that the will of the people will be enforced,” league president Deirdre Macnab said in a statement. “This gives hope to other states grappling with the cancer of political gerrymandering, and the league is thrilled to see that the people’s voice has been heard.”

The Florida Legislature’s top Republican lawmakers said they were reviewing the ruling and declined to comment. “The Legislature is required to create a constitutionally compliant map, and that’s what I expect they will do,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement.

Friday’s decision resulted from a 13-day trial in May and June, a result of the lawsuit brought more than two years ago by the League of Women Voters and other groups. In his ruling July 10, the judge found that Republican operatives covertly manipulated the process. While assuring the public that the rules were being followed, senior legislative staff members and political consultants were emailing one another. In one case, a legislative staff member slipped a GOP consultant a flash drive loaded with maps before they were released to the public, trial testimony revealed.

The judge also found that lawmakers and political consultants had deleted “almost all” of their emails and other documents related to redistricting, knowing a lawsuit was likely. The machinations were nicknamed “Florida’s Game of Thrones,” Ms. Macnab said.

United States - North America - United States government - Florida - United States Congress - U.S. Republican Party - Rick Scott - Florida state government - Corrine Brown - League of Women Voters


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