Appeals court will weigh Florida redistricting fight

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Florida redistricting
Redrawn Congressional districts proposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, 2022.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Despite a request from attorneys for both sides to fast-track the case to the Florida Supreme Court, an appeals court said Monday it will take up a fight about a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature last year.

The 1st District Court of Appeal will hold what is known as “en banc” hearing, meaning that the full court will consider the high-stakes case. In doing so, it will skip the usual process of a three-judge panel hearing the case.

But attorneys for both sides had sought to effectively bypass the Tallahassee appeals court and go straight to the Supreme Court. The appeals court issued a two-paragraph order that did not explain its reasons for deciding to take up the case but gave the parties until 5 p.m. Wednesday to provide an “expedited briefing schedule.”

“A judge of this court having requested that this cause be heard en banc, and a majority of all judges in regular active service that are not recused having voted in favor of that request, this cause shall be considered and determined on the merits en banc,” the order said.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the House and Senate filed a notice of appeal after Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled Sept. 2 that the congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

The state and voting-rights groups that challenged the redistricting plan then asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to take a step known as “certification” of the case to the Supreme Court to speed up a final decision.

“This appeal requires immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court to provide certainty to voters, potential candidates and elections officials regarding the configuration and validity of Florida’s congressional districts sufficiently in advance of the 2024 elections,” the request for certification said. “Given the inherently time-sensitive issues presented in elections cases, redistricting and other election-related cases are routinely certified for immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court.”

The request was aimed at receiving a Supreme Court decision before the Jan. 9 start of the 2024 legislative session. That would allow lawmakers to redraw the map, if needed, and provide a period for possible additional legal wrangling before an April qualifying period in next year’s congressional elections.

“This expedited schedule would afford the Legislature an opportunity to enact a remedial plan, if necessary, before congressional districts must be finalized ahead of the 2024 elections,” the request said. “It would also accommodate the potential need for additional remedial proceedings by the trial (circuit) court on remand. And this expedited schedule would provide sufficient time for Florida’s elections officials at the state and local level — many of which are non-parties to this proceeding — to implement any changes to Florida’s enacted plan that might be required following the appellate and potential remedial processes.”

The case centers on North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past sprawled from Jacksonville to Gadsden County and elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. The Republican-controlled Legislature and DeSantis last year approved a plan that dramatically redrew the district to put it in the Jacksonville area.

White Republicans won all North Florida congressional districts in the November elections after the map was redrawn.

Marsh issued a 55-page decision that sided with voting-rights groups that argued the new map violated a 2010 constitutional amendment known as the Fair Districts amendment, which set standards for redistricting. Part of that amendment barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

“Under the stipulated facts (in the lawsuit), plaintiffs have shown that the enacted plan results in the diminishment of Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in violation of the Florida Constitution,” Marsh wrote.

DeSantis and the state’s attorneys have argued that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prevented using a district similar to the previous shape of Congressional District 5 because it would involve racial gerrymandering.

Under a procedural rule, the state’s notice of appeal put Marsh’s ruling on hold while the case continues to play out. The qualifying period for 2024 congressional candidates will be April 22 to April 26, according to the state Division of Elections website.

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