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Judge reviews congressional maps in Florida gerrymandering case

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida judge held a hearing on Wednesday to review new congressional maps drawn by the legislature in a lawsuit over gerrymandering by Republican leaders, raising the possibility of election delays in some races.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is considering whether to delay the November midterm elections in the affected congressional districts after earlier ruling Republicans had improperly redrawn the state's districts.

Under court orders, the Republican-controlled legislature approved minor changes to seven of Florida's 27 congressional districts last week in a hastily convened special session.

Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University testified on Wednesday that legislators made only minor changes to the districts of U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, and trimmed the district of Representative Daniel Webster, an Orlando-area Republican, to comply with the judge’s order.

The revised maps will probably produce the same 17-10 Republican majority in Florida’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, he said.

A coalition of plaintiffs led by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause have asked the judge to draw a new plan more favorable to minority black and Hispanic voters.

Lawyers for the legislature said the legislature fully complied with Lewis's July 10 order, which threw out the state’s 2012 redistricting plan and ordered redrawing of the two districts in the Jacksonville and Orlando areas.

In July, Lewis ruled that Republican legislative leaders "made a mockery" of anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state's constitution with their 2012 boundaries.

George Meros, an attorney for the state House of Representatives, said lawmakers obeyed the state constitution’s prohibition of favoring either party or protecting incumbents in drawing new lines.

“We conformed to every word of this court’s order," he said.

At the end of the three-hour hearing Lewis said he will act quickly because early and absentee voting has already begun in Florida's Aug. 26 primaries.

The plaintiffs are seeking a special election this year, arguing that voters should not have to elect representatives from unconstitutional districts.

Florida's secretary of state, Republican Ken Detzner, has said March 2015 is the soonest a special primary election could be held, followed by a general election in May.

Republican legislative leaders have said they oppose delays to the fall elections.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by David Adams, Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham)

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