Justice Dept. approves Florida's district maps

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The new Congressional districts for Northeast Florida, as passed by the 2012 Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday approved the Legislature's plans for new congressional, House and Senate districts, paving the way for the state to begin using the maps in preparation for the November elections.

However, the preclearance does not halt a challenge to the state congressional districts under Florida's anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards, and it doesn't bar legal action against the maps under the federal Voting Rights Act.

In a two-paragraph letter dated Monday, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said Attorney General Eric Holder would not "interpose any objection" to the new maps created in the once-a-decade redistricting process. That is the agency's boilerplate language for preclearance.

Under the VRA, Florida must get Justice Department approval for any changes in elections laws affecting Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties because of a history of discrimination against racial or language minorities in those countries.

The approval from the federal government marks the second legal milestone the maps have passed in as many weeks. The Florida Supreme Court approved a second draft of the Senate map on Friday, after rejecting an earlier version in March. Justices approved the House map in the earlier decision, but have yet to hear any challenges to the congressional plan.

Senate leaders said the preclearance for this year's map came earlier than in other redistricting years.

"One of our foremost goals during this redistricting cycle was to conduct the process in a manner that would give both the voters and candidates time to become familiar with the new districts," Senate President Mike Haridopolos, said in a statement. "With the completion of the review process for these redistricting plans today, I am proud to say that we accomplished that goal."

The decision allows county supervisors to move forward with planning for the November elections using the new maps. However, the congressional plans could still be blocked under the Fair Districts amendment dealing with lines for the state delegation.

Unlike the state legislative maps, the congressional plans are not immediately sent to the Supreme Court for the justices' approval. But a group of voters backed by the Florida Democratic Party and a coalition of voting-rights groups has challenged the map in court; Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is expected to issue a ruling in that case soon.

And some Cuban-American lawmakers have threatened to file a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act challenging the Legislature's decision not to draw a fourth state Senate seat with a heavy Hispanic majority in Miami-Dade County. That legal action could move forward despite Monday's decision by the Justice Department.

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