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Congressional redistricting maps come under fire in Leon circuit court

Florida voters deserve not to have “another 10 years of partisan gerrymandering” so the court should throw out a congressional map drawn by legislators to protect incumbents, argued Democrats and a coalition of voting groups before a Leon County court judge Wednesday.

Armed with the Florida Supreme Court’s 5-2 opinion rejecting the legislature’s Senate map, lawyers for the a group of citizens, the Florida Democratic Party and the Fair Districts coalition said the congressional map is chock full of the same flaws and urged Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis to reject them.

“If it’s left in place, even for one election, it will have reverberations that will be unfortunate,’’ said Paul Smith, lawyer for the coalition.

Lawyers for Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature, however, told the court to leave the map alone. They said it is a reflection of the delicate balance lawmakers had to make to protect minority voting rights while also complying with the new anti-gerrymandering standards. The court must give legislators the prerogative to draw its own maps and, they argued, if the judge has doubts about the map, he should wait until after the November elections to conduct a trial.

The hearing Wednesday  was the first round of the lawsuit in the congressional map and is the second map to come under fire in once-a-decade redistricting process. A hearing on the Senate map is scheduled before the Florida Supreme Court on Friday.

A resolution on the congressional map, however, won’t come anytime soon. Lewis must decide whether to throw out all or part of the map now, allow it to stand, or conduct a trial later in the year to hear all the evidence. If he rejects all or part of the congressional map now, legislative leaders have said they will appeal.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. All candidates for the November ballot must decide by June 8 if they are going to run in the 27 races for Congress and elections officials warned Wednesday that rejecting the map could lead to “uncertainty and confusion.”

“It would be nearly impossible to have an enforced congressional map in place before candidate qualifying in early June,’’ said Daniel Nordby, general counsel to the Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Unlike the legislative maps, Florida legislators are not restricted as to when they must draw the congressional districts. Nonetheless, lawmakers waited until the January regular session this year to draw the congressional map – the same time they took up the legislative maps. With the challenges pending, the fate of both the Senate and congressional districts remain uncertain.

The congressional map was signed by the governor Feb. 16 and, before it even became law, the Florida Democratic Party had sued on behalf of seven voters from around the state, alleging the map “was drawn with the intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.” By Feb. 17,  the voters coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida, also filed suit.

Marc Elias, lawyer for the seven voters, said the court should follow the Supreme Court’s “road map” to reject the plan because it unconstitutionally protects incumbents. He said that the map was built on the 2002 map, which did not have to adhere to the anti-incumbency protections and was “a pretty good gerrymander.”

Despite the fact that Florida elected Democrat Barak Obama in 2008, he said that Republican John McCain won 15 of 25 congressional districts and, when Florida gained two new seats because of its growth in population this time, both new seats went to Republicans under the new congressional map.

“The fact is, we started with a gerrymandered plan and we continue in 2012 with a Republican gerrymandered plan,’’ he said.

But George Meros, lawyer for the legislature, countered that the legislature’s map was “a careful analysis that takes into account any number of things.”

He accused the Democrats of trying to "dump" blacks from Democratic districts in an effort to elect more white Democrats -- a suggestion the Democrats called preposterous.

Meros said the alternative map proposed by Democrats was designed to protect incumbents and reduce the number of competitive seats "so they could save money."

He cited the affidavit of Dario Moreno, the Florida International University professor and political consultant who was hired by the Legislature as an Hispanic voting expert. Moreno said the alternative maps proposed by the Democrats would "eviscerate Hispanic voting opportunities" in Miami Dade.

"The Legislature did it the right way -- not the way everybody else would do it,'' Meros said. "They had to make tough choices." 

By the end of the hearing, Lewis clearly seemed reluctant to take on the task of rewriting the map himself. “What if I did it and I was wrong’’ and by the time the case got to the district court of appeals, the election would be run with unconstitutional maps?’’ he asked. 

Elias, the lawyer for the Democrats, said that would be a better option that relying on the legislative plan. “Either we risk running an election under a judicially-drafted fair map and could get it wrong, or we run in an unconstitutional plan,’’ he said.