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Lewis Says He Will Rule On Districts 'As Quickly As I Can'

TALLAHASSEE (NSF) -- Lawmakers did everything they were required to do in response to a Leon County judge's decision last month to strike down two congressional districts, attorneys for the Legislature told the judge Wednesday in the latest round in a long-running legal fight about the state's political lines.

But opponents countered that new boundaries for at least one of the state's 27 congressional districts are still deeply flawed and urged Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to reject the latest draft of the map, approved last week by lawmakers in a special session.

Primary elections are set for Tuesday in congressional districts drawn in 2012, but Lewis has left open the possibility that he could delay the vote in the seven districts ultimately affected when lawmakers shifted the lines during the special session. On Wednesday, Lewis said only that he would try to make a decision soon.

"I'm aware of the time-sensitive nature of this case, and I will do my best to get something out to you as quickly as I can," Lewis told lawyers after a three-hour court hearing.

Lewis' initial ruling last month, in which he found that two districts were drawn to try to maximize the Republican share of Florida's congressional delegation, touched off a scramble to redraw the districts. A coalition of voting-rights organizations and individual voters had sued, arguing that the 2012 map violated anti-gerrymandering standards adopted by voters in 2010.

Specifically, Lewis called for changes to the district represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, which runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, and the Orlando-area district of Republican Congressman Dan Webster. George Meros, an attorney for the House, said Wednesday that lawmakers followed Lewis' instructions during the special session.

"We conformed to every word of this court's order, which is the only thing before this court," Meros said.

But David King, a lawyer for the voting-rights groups, said nothing changed when the Legislature unveiled a second map that tweaked the two unconstitutional districts. Five other districts were also redesigned to meet the requirement that each congressional district has roughly the same population.

"They never tried," King said. "They never considered any other alternative, because the intent that we established in the last trial is alive and well in the Florida Legislature."

Once again during the hearing, Brown's district took center stage. Critics of the map say that the district, which originated in the 1990s to solve a voting-rights dispute, is meant to consolidate a string of African-American communities to channel Democratic-leaning voters out of surrounding districts, which then become more Republican.

Opponents of the map tried to prove in court that drawing a district that runs from east to west would also allow African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice and potentially allow for another minority candidate to win Webster's seat.

But Allison Riggs, an attorney for the NAACP, said that would leave out thousands of black voters in Central Florida. Riggs blasted the map's critics for seeming to fixate on how few African-American voters were needed to create a district where minorities could elect a candidate.

"This isn't a game of limbo -- 'how low can you go with the black voting-age population in order to distribute black voters into Democratic districts?' " Riggs said.

So far, the Legislature hasn't appealed Lewis' rulings, though leaders have left open the possibility if the judge decides to put off the elections. After court on Wednesday, King also declined to rule out an appeal, potentially to the Florida Supreme Court, if Lewis rules against his clients.

State and local elections officials have said a special congressional election could not be held until spring.

The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.



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