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 existing maps, despite previously ruling that two of the state's 27 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 approved minor changes affecting seven congressional districts in a hastily convened special session last week.
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.
Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican, praised Lewis for a “speedy, thoughtful and conscientious decision.”
In his ruling on Friday, Lewis said the legislature's map might not be the best possible for the 27 districts, but it met "the requirements of the Constitution."
Consequently, he ruled that "a special election under the remedial map is not an appropriate remedy."
Delaying November's elections in the affected districts could be expensive and confuse voters, the judge had previously noted.
Republicans had asked for changes to be postponed until after the November elections, with early voting already under way in Aug. 26 primaries.
Florida's secretary of state, Republican Ken Detzner, said March 2015 is the soonest a special primary election could be held, and general elections in May.
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.
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 reproduce the 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)