By FRANCES ROBLES
MIAMI — A Florida judge ordered the state Legislature on Friday to submit a redrawn congressional map within two weeks to replace ones for two districts that were ruled illegal.
In the ruling, Judge Terry P. Lewis of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit held open the possibility of delaying the November elections.
Judge Lewis said that lawmakers must submit the revised map by Aug. 15 and that the state should also propose a new special election schedule because the changes would affect this year’s elections.
He said the revised maps were needed to decide whether to delay November’s elections in the affected districts. “Time is of the essence,” he wrote.
“Until we have a map in place, and we know what districts are affected,” he wrote, “it is difficult, if not impossible to evaluate whether an election with altered district lines in those affected districts is feasible prior to the new Congress
Judge Lewis ruled on July 10 that the lines drawn for Florida’s Fifth and10th Congressional districts “made a mockery” of a voter-approved anti-gerrymandering amendment to the state Constitution meant to inject fairness into a process that has long been politically tainted. That decision came after a 13-day trial in May and June, a result of a lawsuit brought more than two years ago by the League of Women Voters and other groups.
Republicans lawmakers had said after the July ruling that the Legislature would agree to redraw the boundaries for the two congressional seats, but they said they did not want the maps to take effect until the 2016 elections. In deciding not to appeal the ruling at that time, the Republican lawmakers, Will Weatherford, the State House speaker, and Don Gaetz, the State Senate president, warned that the 2014 elections would be thrown into “chaos” if the process were rushed.
In his ruling, Judge Lewis wrote that waiting until 2016 meant that voters would be “deprived of the equal right of having a say in who represents their interests in Congress for two years.”
Lawyers for the coalition that had filed the suit, however, urged the judge at a hearing in late July to redraw the congressional map immediately and delay the Aug. 26 primary — or risk having the voting invalidated. But Judge Lewis said at the time that he was “extremely skeptical” that he could delay elections this fall despite the illegally drawn districts.
In his ruling, the judge found that Republican operatives covertly manipulated the process by using “proxies” who appeared as concerned citizens at public redistricting forums and submitted proposed maps. But while assuring the public that the rules were being followed, senior legislative staff members and political consultants were emailing one another. In one case, a legislative staff member slipped a Republican official a flash drive loaded with maps before they were released to the public.
The judge also found that lawmakers and political consultants had deleted “almost all” of their emails and other documents related to redistricting, knowing a lawsuit was likely. The machinations continued. One map was submitted under the name of a Republican college student who said he never saw it.
Lawmakers also told the court that they had met in secret with political operatives and staff members. A Republican consultant, Pat Bainter, was permitted by the Florida Supreme Court to testify out of view of the public and the news media.
The Republican officials who helped draw the districts, Judge Lewis wrote, “did, in fact, conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”
While Judge Lewis found only two districts unconstitutional, redrawing their boundaries will have ripple effects on neighboring districts in Central Florida.