TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican legislative leaders pledged on Tuesday to redraw congressional districts that were found unconstitutional last week, but they warned that doing so before the November election would create “chaos and confusion.”
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford said they wouldn’t appeal Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ ruling that Florida’s congressional districts were drawn to benefit the Republican Party.
But attorneys for the Legislature filed a lengthy motion asking Lewis to let this year’s election proceed with the existing districts because changing boundaries now would cause problems. Nearly 1.4 million absentee ballots, including ballots headed overseas, have been mailed out in advance of the state’s Aug. 26 primary.
“Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters,” said Gaetz and Weatherford in a joint statement.
The legal filing argued that the entire election calendar between now and November is “carefully calibrated” with deadlines that “cannot be altered without irreparable damage to the election process.” Florida’s election woes in the past — including the chaotic 2000 presidential recount — have made national headlines.
Lewis must decide when new maps will be drawn and who should be responsible for coming up with the new districts. The judge has scheduled a hearing later this week with both sides in the legal dispute.
In his ruling, Lewis declared the entire congressional map invalid, but said that was because 2 out of 27 congressional districts were unconstitutional. Florida’s congressional delegation is split currently between 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
The groups that sued the Legislature over the current maps could file their own appeal, though that would make a resolution before November’s elections even less likely.
David King, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters and other groups, declined to comment on the announcement from legislative leaders other than to say “we are in the process of formulating our plans.”
Justin Leavitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who tracks redistricting cases, said the legislative leaders’ decision not to appeal was unexpected.
But he said top legislators could have been concerned that higher courts might rule other districts invalid as well. The state Supreme Court has ruled against the Legislature in other recent cases connected to redistricting.
“We believe this is the right decision for Florida,” Weatherford said in an emailed response to questions about why the Legislature isn’t fighting the ruling.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on U.S. Census numbers. 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.
Groups suing the Legislature contended that GOP consultants helped create a “shadow” process with the intent of drawing districts to favor Republicans.
Lewis agreed that 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 home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.
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