The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature laid out plans Monday to move ahead quickly and make minimal changes to congressional districts declared illegal by a state judge.
Florida legislators will hold a nine-day special session starting on Thursday to redraw the state's 27 congressional districts. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis had given legislators until Aug. 15 to draw up a new map that may be used for a special election later this year.
Senate President Don Gaetz said that it was the goal of legislative leaders to "move forward without delay to remedy the boundaries of the two congressional districts" cited by Lewis in his July ruling. Lewis ruled that the districts were drawn to benefit Republicans in violation of the "Fair Districts" standards adopted by voters four years earlier.
The two districts are a sprawling district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster.
"Because the court held intact 25 of the state's 27 congressional districts as the Legislature drew them, I believe we can and should meet the court's requirements with minimal impact on the rest of the state," Gaetz said in a statement.
Thomas Zehnder, one of the attorneys who represented the groups that sued the Legislature, applauded leaders for taking "an important first step." But he cautioned that "It remains to be seen whether they will produce maps that comply with the constitution." The groups that had challenged the maps had unsuccessfully asked Lewis to draw a new map instead of leaving the job up to legislators.
Lewis is scheduled to hold an Aug. 20 hearing to consider the new map. He has also ordered state election officials to draw up a proposed special election schedule even though the judge said he has not made up his mind on whether to order one.
Both Gaetz and Weatherford say they will fight any effort to implement a new congressional map during the 2014 elections or in a special election after November. They have argued implementing a map before 2016 would disrupt the elections or disenfranchise voters.
"Other than the partisan plaintiffs masquerading as voting rights groups, I can find no one who would want a postponed or special election to leave Florida without representation in Congress for months, weeks or even days," said Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation and one of the House members assigned to the committee that will draw up the new map, countered that it is wrong that have voters cast ballots on gerrymandered districts.
"I don't think the answer it to let people vote on illegal maps," Thurston said.
Zehnder said in a written statement that it was "disappointing to see the defendants continue to insist on delaying the restoration of representative democracy."
Voters in 2010 passed new standards that said legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party. The congressional map adopted by the Legislature in 2012 was challenged by several groups, including the League of Women Voters, who contended that the GOP consultants used a "shadow" process to draw districts that benefited Republicans.
Lewis agreed, ruling that the consultants had helped make a "mockery" of the process and that there was evidence they helped "manipulate" the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty. The judge relied on emails and documents that have been kept under seal although the state Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether that information should be made public.