By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida judge on Friday approved the new congressional maps redrawn by Republican legislative leaders in a lawsuit over gerrymandering, and ruled that he would not order a special election in affected districts.
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said the 2014 midterm elections would proceed on Nov. 4 using the state's existing maps, despite previously ruling that two of the congressional districts were unconstitutional.
His ruling last month had clouded the outcome of congressional races, holding out the possibility of delays in elections in the largest U.S. swing state.
Under court orders to fix the maps, the Republican-controlled legislature last week approved minor changes affecting seven of Florida's 27 congressional districts in a hastily convened special session.
In July, Lewis ruled that Republican leaders had conspired to rig the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington. Their 2012 maps "made a mockery" of anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state's constitution, he said.
A coalition of plaintiffs that sued the state, led by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, rejected the redrawn maps. They asked the judge to draw a new plan more favorable to minority black and Hispanic voters. They also wanted a special election to be held this year.
"We are disappointed and plan to ask the appellate courts to review Judge Lewis' ruling," said attorney David King, a spokesman for the coalition plaintiffs.
In his ruling on Friday, Lewis said the legislature was not required to please everyone. "The legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution,” he wrote.
A special election is not "an appropriate remedy," Lewis added.
Delaying November's elections in the affected districts until maps could be redrawn and scheduling a special election could be expensive and confuse voters, the judge had previously noted.
Plaintiffs testified on Wednesday that legislators made only minor changes to the invalidated 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.
But while Brown's district "is not a model of compactness, it is much improved,” Lewis said..
The revised maps approved by the judge on Friday will probably produce the same 17-10 Republican majority in Florida’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, an expert testifying for the plaintiffs told Wednesday's hearing.
(Writing by Letitia Stein and David Adams; Editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham)
[Image: "Voters At Polling Station In 2012 Presidential Election," via Shutterstock]