By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
A coalition of voting-rights organizations and individual voters wants the Florida Supreme Court take up the legal battle over the state's congressional districts.
In a notice of appeal filed Friday with the 1st District Court of Appeal, the groups – which include the League of Women Voters of Florida – also said they were giving up on having the lines changed in time for this year's congressional elections.
That had emerged as a major flashpoint in the battle between the Republican-led Legislature and the voting groups about whether congressional districts violated the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.
In July, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that a congressional map approved by lawmakers in 2012 violated the constitutional requirements. That led lawmakers to hold a special legislative session and redraw portions of the map. Lewis upheld the new map, despite arguments from the voting groups that it continued to violate the constitution.
Lawmakers and elections officials said it's too late to try to hold elections under the redrawn lines in 2014 and that a new vote couldn't be scheduled until at least spring. Lewis agreed with the state on the scheduling issue, even though it means voters will cast ballots this year based on 2012 districts that were found unconstitutional.
The voting-rights groups are asking for the Supreme Court to hear the dispute under a legal rule that allows the 1st District Court of Appeal to send cases to the high court if they include issues that "are of great public importance or have a great effect on the proper administration of justice throughout the state."
If that occurred, it would mark the first time that the justices have looked at a congressional map approved as part of the redistricting process following the 2010 Census. The Supreme Court struck down the first version of a map for the state Senate in 2012, then accepted a second draft approved by the Legislature.
In his July ruling, Lewis said lawmakers put too many African-American voters into District 5, represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in an apparent effort to channel those Democratic-leaning voters away from surrounding districts. Brown's district, which runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, has long been slammed by critics as one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.
Lewis also found fault with an appendage of white voters added to the Orlando area's Congressional District 10. Lewis said the voters were placed in Republican Congressman Dan Webster's district to try to help the incumbent hold onto his seat.
During the special session this month, lawmakers made changes to those districts, and the changes also had a ripple effect into surrounding districts.
In their filing Friday, the organizations laid the groundwork for a broad appeal of Lewis' orders, perhaps asking the Supreme Court to strike down districts that the judge found constitutional in July. The brief says Lewis' July decision didn't become final until at least Aug. 1, when he ordered the Legislature to draw a new map.
But if appellate courts decide that Lewis' July 10 order striking down Congressional Districts 5 and 10 amounted to a final decision, then the organizations would be out of time to appeal that portion of the rulings. They could still challenge Lewis' decision approving the changes the Legislature made to the map during the special session earlier this month.