TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Legislature illegally drew the state's congressional districts to primarily benefit the Republican Party, a judge ruled Thursday as he ordered them redrawn.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that the state's Republican-controlled Legislature broke the law when it drew up political maps in 2012. He rejected arguments from top legislative leaders that they had done nothing wrong.
The ruling is not expected to disrupt this year's elections because the Legislature is expected to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. But ultimately the changes could affect the political careers of Florida's congressional delegation.
A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford said Thursday night that the House was reviewing the decision.
Voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that said legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as "gerrymandering."
A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, sued and contended that legislators used a "shadow" process to conceal the role of GOP consultants who helped craft the final maps adopted two years ago.
Lewis ruled that two districts violated the new standards: a sprawling district held by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown (pictured in 2012 photo) that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster. Brown is a Democrat, while Webster is a Republican.
"(The ruling is) very disappointing," Brown told News4Jax by phone from Washington. "The Legislature had hearings all over the state of Florida, over 26 public hearings. The House and the Senate voted on the map, and in one week, one activist judge is going to throw it out? Very unacceptable. I will continue to fight to represent my constituents."
In his ruling Lewis stated that evidence presented during a nearly two-week trial showed that outside GOP political consultants engaged in a "conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty."
Brown pointed out that she's been in court defending her district for most of her 23 years in Congress.
"Last week, we celebrated the 1965 voting rights act, and federal law supersedes state law. And the point is, if it wasn't for the 1965 voting rights act, I would not have been elected," Brown said. "I've been in Congress 23 years and been in court most of the time. They're always suing my district. Why is that?"
The evidence included testimony that a top House aide shared maps with a Republican consultant before they were made public. Another map, which resembled one put together by a consultant, was submitted in the name of a college student who said under oath he had nothing to do with it. The groups also questioned why legislators and legislative staff deleted emails even though they knew a lawsuit was likely.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz testified during the trial that outside GOP consultants were told early on that they would have no role in the process. They both denied that the Legislature deliberately drew up maps to favor Republicans. Attorneys for the Legislature repeatedly pointed out during the trial that several Republican incumbents, including U.S. Rep. Allen West, lost their re-election bids in 2012.
Attorneys and legislators also called the deletion of emails routine.
Even though there are more registered Democrats in the state, Republicans currently hold a 17-10 majority in Florida's congressional delegation. President Barack Obama also won the state in the last two presidential elections, although Republicans have won the last four gubernatorial races.
Brown called it a federal issue and vowed to take the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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