TAMPA — A Florida judge on Friday ordered lawmakers to draw a new congressional district map for the state after ruling last month that the old one was illegally designed by the Republican majority in the state Legislature to benefit candidates from the party.
But the ruling leaves open the question of whether the judge will order a special congressional election this year using the new map or whether the 2014 election will proceed under the old one.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wants the new map by Aug. 15, meaning legislators must hold a special session in order to comply with the decision.
Lewis wrote that voters shouldn’t be forced to choose representatives for the next two years under an illegal map, but he noted that it would be difficult to put a new one in place this year. After the map is drawn, he said, he’ll consider whether to order a special election using it.
Experts have said it’s possible, though not likely, that redrawing the map could affect congressional districts in the Tampa area.
Lewis’ ruling focuses on only two of the state’s 27 districts — Democrat Corinne Brown’s District 5, which straggles from Jacksonville to Orlando, and Republican Dan Webster’s central Florida 10th District.
Redrawing those districts, however, will force changes to adjacent central Florida districts, and ripple effects could reach 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 plaintiffs.
“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 an effect on the Polk County, east Hillsborough County 15th District held by Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.
The League of Women Voters of Florida was part of a coalition of plaintiffs alleging the district map passed by the state Legislature for the 2012 election was unconstitutional. They argued that the Republican-controlled Legislature used a “shadow” process that allowed GOP consultants to influence how the districts were drawn.
Lewis’ decision was based on the amendment passed by Florida voters in 2010 that prohibits districts being drawn to favor incumbents or a political party.
The Florida Legislature, a defendant in the case, didn’t appeal that decision but argued that the Legislature should draw the new map for the 2016 election because the qualifying period for the 2014 vote is over and ballots are being printed and mailed.
The coalition that challenged the districts said Lewis or an independent expert should draw the new map or that Lewis should give the Legislature detailed instructions on drawing one. It said Lewis should order changes in this year’s election schedule to avoid having another election under an illegal map.
In his ruling, Lewis said he found the arguments from legislative lawyers “more sensible” and agreed that the Legislature should be responsible for the new map.
But he left open the possibility of using the new map this year, saying he’s reluctant to tell voters “they have been deprived of the equal right of having a say in who represents their interests in Congress for two years.”
“Even if a revised map was in place today, the legal and logistical machinations it would take to have the election take place on November 4th under that revised map is not something justified by law of common sense,” he wrote.
“However, it might be possible to push the general election back to allow for a special election in 2014 for any affected districts” — one of the options requested by the plaintiffs.
“Our laws do not always allow the most efficient, the most satisfying remedy for those who have been wronged,” he added. “The cure should not be worse for the patient than the illness.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, offered no reaction to the ruling. Spokesmen said the lawmakers were reviewing the decision.
The plaintiffs groups that challenged the current congressional map praised the decision.
“This is a champagne moment for Florida voters, who have waited too long for fairly drawn congressional districts,” said Deirdre Macnab, League of Women Voters president. “We believe that the restoration of legitimate, representative democracy is well worth one extra trip to the polls.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the state’s senior elected Democrat, praised the decision but worried that it might not take effect this year.
“The court ruled in favor of Florida voters,” Nelson said. “But, unfortunately, I expect the state might try to appeal to delay having to carry out the court’s directive before the election.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. [email protected]