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    Redistricting battles may bump election schedule

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 16, 2002

    JACKSONVILLE -- A three-judge federal panel trying to resolve challenges to Florida's 25 new congressional districts confronted the possibility Monday that election deadlines might be in jeopardy.

    "We don't have much time," said U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Tallahassee, a member of the panel.

    A trial would not start until June 3, after a series of conferences and time for both sides to disclose evidence and expert witnesses. If the panel rejects the map, Gov. Jeb Bush must call the Legislature back to try again.

    The first election deadline is June 24, the last day candidates can get on the ballot to run for Congress by petition rather than paying a qualifying fee.

    Debbie Kearney, attorney for Secretary of State Katherine Harris, described the series of deadlines as "a house of cards" that would collapse quickly if the first were not met.

    The timeline also concerns Republican legislators because they want to draw a new map if necessary rather than leaving it to the judges. The districts will help determine which political party will control state government and the U.S. House of Representatives.

    "I think the plan should be upheld, said former state Senate President Jim Scott, one of the Senate's lawyers. "But if there's a problem, all we ask is that they give the Legislature the opportunity to fix it."

    A wood-paneled fourth-floor courtroom in this riverfront city was packed with high-priced legal talent, much of it paid for by Florida taxpayers. House Speaker Tom Feeney had six lawyers representing his chamber's side and the Senate had four lawyers, including Miami lawyer Thomas Scott, a former federal judge and U.S. attorney in South Florida.

    The map in dispute creates a central Florida district tailor-made for Feeney, and another in Miami-Dade and Collier counties designed for state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.

    Florida's explosive growth during the '90s resulted in a net gain of two more seats in Congress. Both seats were drawn to satisfy the congressional ambitions of a pair of House Republicans.

    The timetable is complicated by several factors, including the requirement that any map of voting districts must be approved by the Justice Department for its effect on minority voters in five counties, including Hillsborough. The federal government has 60 days to review a plan after it is received.

    Much of Monday's discussion dealt with whether state or federal court is the best forum to resolve questions about a congressional map. Judge Jordan chided an attorney for the Democrats for "forum-shopping."

    Florida's three black members of Congress, all Democrats, filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court, claiming the map lessens black voting influence in their districts. That lawsuit was shifted to federal court and attorney J. Gerald Hebert is attempting to get the case back before before a presumably friendlier judge in Broward, a Democratic stronghold.

    "Our goal is to get the plan overturned as quickly as possible," Hebert said.

    The only plaintiff present Monday was U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, who filed the lawsuit with Reps. Carrie Meek of Miami and Alcee Hastings of Miramar.

    "I'm very disturbed," Brown said as she left the courtroom. "Most of those lawyers are being paid by taxpayers' dollars defending unconstitutional gerrymandered districts."

    Another lawsuit by U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, was filed before the Legislature approved the map last month. It accuses lawmakers of taking too long to complete the once-a-decade job of reapportioning the state's population.

    The panel reviewing the congressional map includes U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan of Miami and Gerald Tjoflat, a member of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Hinkle and Jordan were nominated to the federal bench by President Clinton. Tjoflat was nominated as a federal judge by President Nixon and elevated to the appellate bench by President Ford.

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