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Hearing on newly drawn congressional maps set for April

The state Democratic Party and a coalition of voter groups hoping to invalidate newly drawn congressional districts will be allowed to make their case during a trial next month.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis took no action on the House and the Senate's request to delay the lawsuit until after the fall election, though his decision to proceed with a hearing dealt the Republican-led chambers a blow. He also made no promises that he would rule on the case before November or be able to correct any issues he might find.

However, Lewis said he wants to at least attempt to address some of issues during a yet-to-be-scheduled trial the week of April 16, and he urged the parties to narrow the evidence that will be introduced. Candidates for Congress are scheduled to qualify June 4 through 8.

The outcome of that trial will depend heavily on the facts presented and how much common ground the two sides can reach, the judge said.

“I don’t know that I could resolve the claims of the plaintiffs in the time they want to resolve them,” Lewis said during Friday’s roughly 30-minute hearing.

The lawsuit, filed by the Florida League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida, accuses legislators of trying to protect incumbents and therefore violating the anti-gerrymandering amendment.

The judge suggested the plaintiffs consider dropping the House and the Senate as defendants, but that has not been agreed to and the Legislature could still decide it wants to remain a party in the case. The Secretary of State and Attorney General's Office are also involved in the defense.

Lewis said he asked the Florida Supreme Court to share software and other resources used during a similar challenge to the Florida House and Senate maps, a rare occurrence and signal the juge hopes to delve into the evidence.

Last week, the Supreme Court validated the House maps but rejected the Senate’s and suggested fixes. A 15-day special session began Wednesday to allow lawmakers to redraw the Senate maps.

The coalition of plaintiffs asked the judge to expedite the challenge to the congressional maps, saying elections shouldn’t be allowed to move forward under the proposed districts. Pete Dunbar, an attorney representing the Senate, said both sides of the suit want the judge to bring clarity to the upcoming election.

“At a time you could appropriately get there, you would like to have certainty in the electoral process,” Dunbar said.