Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled Friday that the Florida Legislature must immediately revise its flawed congressional map and ordered lawmakers to submit a revised map by Aug. 15 and the secretary of state to propose a special election plan for the affected congressional districts.
Lewis agreed with the Legislature's lawyers and concluded "there is just no way, legally or logistically, to put in place a new map, amend the various deadlines and have elections on November 4th as prescribed by Federal law."
While he acknowledged that there is no easy solution to fixing the map that violates the state's Fair Districts rules, he suggested "it might be possible to push the general election date back to allow for a special election in 2014 for any affected districts." Download Romo.Remedy Order.August 1, 2014 (1)
Lewis ruled on July 10 that the congressional redistricting map drawn by the Republican-led legislature included two districts drawn with illegal partisan intent which makes the entire map unconstitutional. His order on Friday requires the Legislature to modify the two districts, but it is estimated that could affect the lines of as many as 10 districts that touch them.
Although the voters groups who challenged the congressional maps argued that the Legislature cannot be trusted to fix the maps, Lewis agreed with the lawyers for the House and Senate and said the Legislature should redraw the maps. But he wants it done quickly.
"The cure should not be worse for the patient than the illness,'' Lewis wrote. "To develop a new map and hold a special election for some congressional representatives would cost more money, would place additional burdens on our election officials and might confuse some voters. On the other hand, to do nothing, when you could, means that you lessen the ability of many citizens to fairly elect representatives of their choice -- which is the effect of political gerrymandered districts."
He suggested that a revised map be in place by Aug. 21, meaning legislators would have to meet in special session to approve a fix, and new elections could be held based on that. He also concluded "it is not an option to have a special election after the general election is held as I would no longer have jurisdiction over the matter."
Lawyers for the Legislature had argued the changing the map before the November elections would "cause horrific uncertainty" for voters and would be an extreme, unnecessary remedy.
Lewis left open the possibility that he may ultimately agree with the the Republican leaders that revising the election for a new map is not legal or practical but he said "I am not there yet."
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, whose districts was one of the two districts deemed invalid by Lewis said his ruling Friday “is certainly not in the best interests of Florida voters.”
Lewis concluded that her serpentine-shaped district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, was intended to benefit Republicans and could have been drawn to protect minority voters without dividing whole communities and packing Republicans into adjoining districts. Brown, who unsuccessfully sued to invalidate the Fair District law, disagrees.
“Overturning the current District 5 map ignores one of the central principles of redistricting: maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts,’’ she said in her statement Friday.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz indicated they will not be prepared to comment on the ruling until Monday. Lewis, however, gave legislators one more chance to make their arguments and scheduled an Aug. 20 hearing to review the proposals.
The Republican leaders could ask the First District Court of Appeals to stay Lewis' ruling and review it on appeal, or they or the governor could call a special session in time to approve a new map by the Aug. 15 deadline.
The coalition of voters groups, led by the League of Women Voters, filed the lawsuit challenging the state's congressional map as violating the Fair Districts rules approved by voters in 2010. They were pleased with Lewis' ruling.
"This is a champagne moment for Florida voters, who have waited too long for fairly drawn congressional districts,'' said of Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "Judge Lewis has laid out a path that will allow all Florida voters, for the first time in decades, to elect their representatives in fair and constitutional districts.”
Peter Butzin, chair of Common Cause Florida which also joined the lawsuit, said Lewis' ruling "protected the rights of Floridians."
“Although holding an election based on fair and constitutional districts may create some logistical challenges, protecting Floridians’ right to select the representatives of their choice is a fundamental value that cannot be put off until next election,” Butzin said.
Lewis' ruled that in addition to Brown’s district, the district the held U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden was drawn for improper partisan intent.
After a 13-day trial, Lewis concluded that the Republican-controlled Legislature allowed “improper partisan intent” to infiltrate the redistricting process and seemingly ignored evidence that partisan political operatives were “making a mockery” out of their attempts to conduct themselves with transparency.
The Legislature decided not to appeal the ruling and their lawyers urged Lewis to let them revise the map after the November elections, in order to avoid disrupting the fall elections and to comply with federal voting rules that impose a fixed schedule for sending ballots to overseas military.