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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014
Politics

Florida GOP: No appeal on map ruling, but put district changes on hold

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The Republican-led Legislature won’t appeal a ruling that found two newly drawn Florida congressional districts unconstitutional.

The decision means the two districts must be redrawn in a process that could change the boundaries of other congressional districts, including those extending into the Tampa area.

“This is a giant jigsaw puzzle. When you change two pieces you affect not only those that are adjacent but those that aren’t,” said University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith, who testified in the trial over the districting plan on behalf of the League of Women Voters.

“It’s not inconceivable that the ripple effect could extend even to districts 13 and 14,” the districts held by Republican David Jolly of St. Petersburg and Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa.

More likely, Smith said, is the Polk/Hillsborough 15th District held by Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

The league was one of the plaintiffs alleging the districting plan passed by the state Legislature for the 2012 election was unconstitutional.

Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican who has also testified in redistricting cases, said he believes Ross is the only Tampa-area representative likely to be affected.

That’s because the judge who ruled on the case, Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, focused most of his criticism on a district held by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, Paulson said.

Her elongated district, shaped something like a backward question mark, extends south from Jacksonville to Orlando. It was drawn to include as many black voters as possible, making the surrounding districts more Republican.

Lewis’ decision “talked at great length about all the squiggles and permutations to pack in as many African-Americans as possible, and make the surrounding districts Republican,” Paulson said. “That will be the big fix.”

Lewis ruled Brown’s 5th Congressional District and the 10th District, held by Rep. Dan Webster, R-Orlando, were unconstitutional. The decision came at the end of a 13-day trial that featured testimony from top legislative leaders, redistricting staff and top GOP political consultants.

Plaintiffs, including the league, said maps were drawn to favor Republicans.

In a joint statement Tuesday, House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville said they’ve formally asked Lewis to keep the current map in place, though it’s unconstitutional, through the 2014 midterm elections. The duo argued it’s too late to upend the current maps with the primary election set for Aug. 26.

“According to federal law, over 63,000 Florida military and overseas voters are already casting absentee ballots based on the current Congressional map,” the statement read.

Weatherford and Gaetz also noted that absentee ballots will be sent to hundreds of thousands of in-state voters starting next week.

“Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters,” the two wrote.

On Monday, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking Lewis to hold a hearing quickly to decide how to move forward because “time is of the essence” with the 2014 elections approaching.

The groups challenging the congressional map declined to comment Tuesday, awaiting a decision from their legal team about how to respond to the legislative leaders’ request.

The decision not to appeal was applauded by some Democrats.

“I think it is good; over the past decade or so we seem to be the most litigious Legislature in the history of mankind,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “I think for once common sense set in and we are going to go ahead and fix things.”

Incoming House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said it offers an “opportunity to get the map right.”

In his ruling, issued Thursday, Lewis agreed with the plaintiffs that redistricting staff worked with outside political consultants to create a “shadow redistricting process.”

If Lewis agrees to let the districts stand for now, new lines would be drawn after the November general election — and could be driven by who wins the governor’s race.

If Democrat Charlie Crist wins, it likely would mean the Republican-led Legislature would want to complete the map-drawing process prior to the new governor being sworn into office in early January.

That would allow Republican Gov. Rick Scott to sign the new maps into law even if he loses his re-election bid.

Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com

(352) 233-0777

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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