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Florida judge throws out 2012 congressional redistricting plan

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - A Florida judge threw out the state's 2012 congressional redistricting plan on Thursday, saying Republicans conspired to manipulate the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington and "made a mockery" of the rules of transparency in the process.

In the 41-page ruling Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis specifically ordered that two of the state's 27 districts should be redrawn as they violated a "Fair Districts Florida" standard approved by voters in 2010 to ban legislators from favoring or protecting incumbents.

"What is clear to me from the evidence ... is that this group of Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process," Lewis wrote.

"They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent," he added.

The decision followed a 13-day trial that ended in early June during which several groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, challenged the redistricting plan under which 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although Democrats hold a slight edge in voter registration across Florida, Republicans have 17 of the state's 27 seats in the House.

The League and other plaintiffs argued that such results could only happen from gerrymandered districts drawn by partisan committee chiefs and presiding officers.

The two invalidated districts belong to U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Daniel Webster, an Orlando-area Republican.

Redrawing those districts would involve a political process with ripple effects on neighboring districts.

Legislative leaders said they were reviewing the ruling, which is likely to be appealed by leaders of the Florida House and Senate which have roughly two-thirds Republican majorities in both chambers.

An appeal could delay any possible boundary changes until after the November mid-term elections. During the two-week trial, attorneys for the plaintiffs cited a series of private meetings, deleted emails, and Republican-only huddles between staff and professional campaign consultants. But Republican lawmakers, their aides and outside consultants testified no secret deals were struck.

In his ruling Lewis said trial evidence showed that political advisers wrote scripts for public hearings and prepared witnesses to advocate for various changes in districts.

The judge noted that Republican leaders who chaired the redistricting committees before becoming presiding officers had fought against the two "Fair Districts Florida" amendments and often stated publicly that they were unworkable.

"They made a mockery of the Legislature's proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process," Lewis wrote, noting they went "to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.

"They might have successfully concealed their scheme and their actions from the public, had it not been for the plaintiffs' determined efforts to uncover it in this case," he added.

(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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