TALLAHASSEE — A Florida judge on Friday ordered legislators to draw up a new congressional map for the state after the old one was ruled to be illegal.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wants the new map by Aug. 15, meaning that legislators would have to hold a special session in order to comply with the decision. Lewis said he will then consider whether to order a special election later this year under this new map.
Lewis in July ruled that the current districts are illegal because they were drawn to benefit the Republican Party. Voters in 2010 passed the “Fair Districts” amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party. His July ruling sparked a legal battle over what to do since Florida’s primary election is scheduled for Aug. 26.
A coalition of groups that challenged the current districts had asked Lewis to adopt a new map and adjust this year’s election schedule. But legislative leaders said the state’s current districts should be kept in place to avoid disrupting the 2014 elections. They also contended only the Legislature has the authority to draw new districts.
In his ruling, Lewis said he found the arguments from legislative lawyers “more sensible” and agreed that the Legislature should be responsible for the new map.
But he said he could not push off a new map until 2016. Lewis said to do so would be telling voters “they have been deprived of the equal right of having a say in who represents their interests in Congress for two years.”
The judge said that after further research and evidence it could wind up that a new map is “not legally authorized or logistically practicable. But I am not there yet...”
There was no immediate reaction on the ruling. Representatives for House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz said they were “reviewing” the decision.
The coalition of groups that challenged the current congressional map praised the decision.
“This is a champagne moment for Florida voters, who have waited too long for fairly drawn congressional districts,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “We believe that the restoration of legitimate, representative democracy is well worth one extra trip to the polls.”
The League and others contended that the Republican-controlled Legislature had used a “shadow” process that allowed GOP consultants to influence how the congressional districts were drawn.
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. Any efforts to redraw these two districts would likely result in changes to other districts in central Florida.