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Congressional district challenge coming

New congressional maps approved Tuesday by the Florida Senate. For more detailed district maps and statistical information visit Flsenate.gov/session/redistricting

A judge said Friday he could begin hearing at least some challenges to the Legislature's congressional redistricting plan within a month, depending on a series of decisions that the parties to the case will make.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis indicated Friday he would like to take care of at least some of the issues at a hearing the week of April 16, when Lewis is supposed to be in court for trials.

Those challenges would largely deal with "facial" issues based on facts that both sides agree to -- not on the more extensive claims that might rely on testimony and documentary evidence.

Qualifying is in June, but candidates qualifying by petition face an early May deadline, and either way the schedule is compressed, putting pressure on to get a ruling sooner rather than later.
Moving qualifying would have to be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of racial discrimination in five Florida counties.

Lewis said he understood that everyone needs a quick resolution.

"If I were running for office right now, I'd be really concerned because I've got this suit out there," he said.

But an April trial date would likely require the plaintiffs in the case -- which include a group of voters backed by the Florida Democratic Party and a coalition of voting-rights groups -- to drop the House and Senate as defendants in the case. That would free the court of a provision that stays any legal action involving the Legislature during and for a time after session.

Lawmakers are currently in an extraordinary session called to deal with the Florida Supreme Court's decision to scrap the first legislative plan for state Senate districts.

The House and Senate could still move to intervene in the case, Lewis said, but they would have to waive the stay.

Senate lawyers pressed hard for anything considered by the court in April to be limited. They noted that the Senate redistricting staff, which would have to help attorneys sift through evidence and might be deposed, is working to respond to the Supreme Court opinion on the separate issue of the Senate district maps.

"Depending on what is filed, if it's anything other than just the facial allegations that we would work on, it's a tremendous burden and almost impossible to attain in this time frame, when we're also under the constitutional mandates to finish up," said Pete Dunbar, the lawyer representing the Senate.

But Michael DeSanctis, an attorney for the coalition of voting-rights groups, said that was the Senate's fault.

"I would just like to remind the court that the only reason they're in session is because they drew an unconstitutional map to begin with," he said.

Both sides said they would try to get back to Lewis on Monday to deal with whether the House and Senate would be defendants or intervene separately.