TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - It will be virtually impossible for lawmakers to redraw two congressional districts deemed unconstitutional by a Tallahassee judge before the Nov. 4 general election, lawyers for the Department of State, the Legislature and county elections supervisors argued in court Thursday.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis did not decide how to move forward with his July 10 ruling that struck districts in Northeast and Central Florida but agreed to hold another hearing next week to listen to arguments from both sides.
There isn't enough time to craft new districts because of state and federal deadlines related to mailing ballots for the Aug. 26 primary election and qualifying periods for the general election, the lawyers said.
"This is not an impending election. This election has begun. To undo that, or to cancel that, is both impossible and in no way governed or set forth by Florida statutes or the constitution," George Meros, a lawyer representing the Legislature, told the judge during a 20-minute hearing Thursday morning.
But David King, a lawyer representing voting-rights groups that sued the state over the congressional map drawn up in 2012 by the GOP-controlled Legislature, argued that lawmakers should come up with a new plan.
"We've already had one election on an unconstitutional map in 2012," King said.
Lewis ruled last week that lawmakers failed during the 2012 redistricting process to follow the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010. The amendments bar the Legislature from crafting districts that favor incumbents or political parties.
Lewis' ruling targeted districts represented by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Congressman Daniel Webster, a Winter Garden Republican. Brown's District 5, which winds its way from Jacksonville to Orlando, has been criticized for years as one of the worst examples of gerrymandering in the nation.
Redrawing the two districts targeted in Lewis's ruling could affect some neighboring seats, especially those surrounding Webster's District 10 seat.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, surprised many Capitol insiders--- including Lewis --- when they announced earlier this week they would not appeal the judge's ruling, if this year's elections could take place as planned.
"Quite frankly when I issued my order I thought surely one side or the other would appeal. So it didn't really occur to me to start thinking about what to do with the 2014 election," Lewis said.
Siding with the state, elections supervisors' lawyer Ron Labasky told the judge that officials have already mailed overseas ballots and received some voted ballots in return. And the first batch of absentee ballots is slated to be sent to voters next week, Labasky said.
"I'm not sure how we back up and allow somebody to vote again in a new district," Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said. "Absent some very novel, creative plan on your part, we just don't see how there's any possible way … to have an election in newly created districts."
But King took issue with the legislative leaders' approach.
"It's surprising that the Legislature would say on the one hand that you're right … we accept the decision that this map is unconstitutional," he said. "Now what we get is a salvo about how it's so impossible to deal with it and there's no effort to even consider trying to get this situation resolved before the 2014 election."
King asked Lewis to schedule a hearing next week to "see if there's a way we can't deal with this so we can have an election in 2014 on a constitutional map."
Gaetz and Weatherford proposed having lawmakers deal with a new map after the November elections. Holding a special session to deal with the map prior to that would create another "obstacle," Lewis noted.
"There's a lot of time constraints. If you called everybody real quick, it would still take a lot of time," he said.
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