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Judge Wants Proposed Congressional Maps by Monday

All of the parties involved in a legal fight over the shape of the state's congressional districts have until Monday to submit maps they believe should be used in the looming 2016 elections, a Leon County judge ruled Friday.

An order approved by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis lays out the timeline for the latest stage of the courtroom battle, now in its fourth year. The Legislature's version of the congressional map was thrown out in July by the Florida Supreme Court, which said the plan violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by voters in 2010.

The process for redrawing the map plunged into chaos when lawmakers emerged from a special session last month without a deal on what the state's 27 U.S. House districts should look like. A hearing held Friday by Lewis followed another Supreme Court ruling last week on how to proceed.

Under the plan, Lewis will hear arguments starting Sept. 24 on what could be as many as four maps. The House and Senate are each expected to submit plans. Also, a coalition of voting-rights organizations and a group of voters that filed lawsuits challenging an initial version of the map drawn by lawmakers in 2012 could each submit a set of districts to Lewis.

Lewis also approved a part of the order that will require anyone submitting a map to spell out in detail who was involved in crafting the plan. The voters who challenged the 2012 map --- known as the Romo plaintiffs, whose lawsuit was supported by the Florida Democratic Party --- objected to that provision.

John Devaney, an attorney for those plaintiffs, said requiring such information would come close to evidence-gathering that the Supreme Court said shouldn't take place during the current round of hearings. He also said it wasn't necessary to know who drew a particular plan.

"The real question is, which maps properly implement the Supreme Court's decision?" Devaney said. "And that's a simple exercise that can be carried by just reviewing the maps."

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, two organizations that also challenged the districts, agreed to disclose who helped draw any maps they submit.

Lawyers for the Legislature slammed Devaney's comments. During a trial last year over the 2012 map, it was revealed that lawmakers relied on plans that GOP political operatives secretly funneled through a public comment process.

"It cannot be the case, and the Supreme Court never held, that the Romo plaintiffs or the League plaintiffs have the right to draw a map in darkness with mal-intent and with our inability to prove it by virtue of not having any discovery," said George Meros, an attorney for the state House.

Meros said allowing the case to move forward without the rule would be "beyond outrageous."

Whatever map Lewis decides to approve will likely head back to the Florida Supreme Court, which plans to take over the case again on Oct. 17.