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Judge: Florida to redraw congressional maps by Aug. 15

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida judge on Friday set a deadline of Aug. 15 for state lawmakers to redraw U.S. congressional district maps that he ruled were unconstitutional.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis also held open the possibility of delaying the election for the affected districts. The general election is on Nov. 4.

Lewis had ruled that two of the state's 27 districts for the U.S. House of Representatives must be redrawn because Republican leaders had conspired to rig the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington.

It was not immediately clear if Republican leaders could slow down any changes during an election year by appealing the decision.

“Time is of the essence,” Lewis wrote in his six-page order. “It is necessary to get a revised map in place and for me to consider additional evidence as to the legal and logistical obstacles to holding delayed elections for affected districts in 2014.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which successfully sued the state for illegally favoring incumbents in its 2012 congressional redistricting plan, argued it still is possible to fix the boundaries, even though absentee ballots for the August primary already have been sent out.

"Floridians deserve a chance to go to the polls and cast their votes on constitutional maps," said Deirdre Macnab, the group's state president.

A spokesman for Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford said legislative leaders are studying the ruling.

The case focused on congressional districts represented by Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican Daniel Webster and a requirement approved by voters in 2010 that prohibited legislators from favoring or protecting incumbents.

Lewis ruled that lawmakers conspired with consultants to pack black voters into Brown's district, which meanders from Jacksonville in north Florida to Orlando in the central part of the state. That left adjoining districts, including Webster's, heavily white and Republican.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott)

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