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Judge rules in congressional redistricting challenge

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A Florida judge on Friday endorsed a map drawn by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause as the new boundary lines for the state’s 27 congressional districts.

What it portends is a topsy-turvy time for Florida’s politics, with some members of Congress virtually ensured an exit from office next election. By late afternoon, the Twitterati was predicting a net gain of two congressional seats for Democrats.

The changes also have national implications: Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster is now running for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, but the proposed map guts his electoral support as it makes his Central Florida 10th District a Hispanic and registered Democrat-heavy seat.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis‘ decision still must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court, which has the last say in the case.

The court late Friday ordered a series of deadlines through Tuesday, Oct. 27, for the plaintiffs, Legislature and others to submit briefs for and against Lewis’ decision. “The Court will determine at a later time whether to conduct oral argument,” it said.

“The citizens of Florida have won!” said David King, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, in an initial statement on the ruling. He offered what became known as the “coalition map” in the shorthand of the three-year-old challenge.

Among other changes, the map redraws the 5th Congressional District, now held by Democrat Corinne Brown, from a north-south district into an east-west one.

That cuts into U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham‘s 2nd District, excising much of Graham’s Democratic base in Gadsden, Jefferson and Leon counties. Her district would keep most of Tallahassee, her hometown.

“I’m disappointed in the court’s decision to divide Leon County and Tallahassee (but) the map isn’t final and there’s no predicting what the Supreme Court will decide,” Graham said in an email. “There’s plenty of time before the next election. My focus remains on serving my constituents and representing North Florida in Congress.”

The map also constrains Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly‘s 13th Congressional District to the Pinellas County side of Tampa Bay, and keeps Democratic U.S. Rep.  Kathy Castor‘s 14th District seat to the Hillsborough County side.

The Supreme Court earlier had dictated that political districts could not cross the Bay, as they do now.

If OK’d by the Supreme Court, the change makes the 13th’s political makeup more strongly Democratic and thus even more likely that Pinellas resident and former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, will run for the seat in 2016.

A Crist spokesman only said the former governor will be “watching” to see what the Supreme Court decides. Spokespeople for some members of Congress did not immediately comment on the ruling.

Jolly has thrown his hat into the race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, who is seeking the GOP nomination for president.

The new map could end the political career of 66-year-old Webster, a conservative icon. Webster previously pleaded with lawmakers in the last Special Session, acknowledging he could not be re-elected in such a district.

Webster led the Republican Party’s rise to statewide power in Florida in the 1990s. He eventually held office longer than any other state lawmaker before Florida instituted term limits. Webster was Florida House Speaker (1996-98) and Senate Republican Leader before his election to Congress in 2010.

The coalition map also redraws Districts 20 through 27 in South Florida and keeps whole the city of Homestead, for instance.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause had sued over the current congressional lines, redrawn after the 2010 census.

They said the existing map violates a state constitutional prohibition against gerrymandering, the manipulation of political boundaries to favor a particular incumbent or party.

Voters in 2010 passed the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments to prohibit such gerrymandering. 

The case worked its way to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled that the current map was “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

The high court gave 100 days for lawmakers to come up with a solution, and that time runs out in mid-October.

The House and Senate failed to agree on a map during a Special Session this summer, throwing it back into the courts.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, mindful that yet another Special Session looms to address deficiencies in the state Senate district maps, sent a memo to senators after the ruling.

“I look forward to seeing you on October 19 to begin our work to pass a new Senate map,” he wrote. “Today’s order highlights the importance of a joint legislative work product.

“I believe the process Chairs (Bill) Galvano and (Jose) Oliva established will enable us to develop a mutually agreeable product and (I) look forward to viewing the base maps created by the professional staff of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment and the House Select Committee on Redistricting when they become available.”

State Sen. Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, and state Rep. Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, lead their chambers’ respective redistricting panels.

Also Friday, Speaker Steve Crisafulli sent his own memo to House members.

He noted that Lewis – while ultimately in favor of the coalition map – also had found “the House map preferable to either Senate map and noted that the Plaintiffs’ proposed maps were aligned to the House map in most districts.”

Lewis “found that the Legislature took appropriate steps to guard against improper partisan intent, and that there was no evidence that legislative staff had any intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent,” Crisafulli said.

Plaintiff’s attorney King, in a subsequent statement, called Lewis’ decision “another great victory for the people of Florida and for restoration of representative democracy as it was intended to work.”

“The map Judge Lewis recommended … is the product of a tireless commitment to rid our state of partisan gerrymandering,” he said. “If the Florida Supreme Court agrees with Judge Lewis and orders this map to be used, we will have ensured that Floridians have the opportunity to vote in constitutional and fair congressional districts in 2016.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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