Florida is fighting an attempt to speed up the legal battle over Congressional redistricting

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

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Objecting to an attempt to speed up the case, attorneys for the state argued Friday “there is no reasonable likelihood” the Florida Supreme Court will rule in a congressional redistricting battle in time for the 2024 elections.

The attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Legislature pushed back against a request by voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs for the Supreme Court to expedite the handling of a challenge to a ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal. That ruling upheld a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022.

Looming over the case is a congressional-candidate qualifying period that is scheduled from April 22 to April 26. In agreeing last month to take up the case, the Supreme Court detailed a briefing schedule that made it unlikely the dispute could be resolved by the qualifying period — prompting the plaintiffs to file a motion to speed up the process.

The disputed redistricting plan was used in the 2022 elections and, barring action by the Supreme Court, would remain in place for the 2024 elections.

In a court document filed Friday, attorneys for the state said the plaintiffs were seeking to “litigate this case at a breakneck pace.” They also said the 1st District Court of Appeal’s ruling has offered certainty for elections officials as they prepare for the 2024 elections.

“Though petitioners (the plaintiffs) may disagree with the current state of affairs, the district court provided clarity for state and county election officials when it affirmed the state’s electoral map, and this (Supreme) Court solidified that clarity when it set this case on the ordinary briefing track,” the state response to the motion said. “Expediting proceedings now would only thrust the state’s 2024 electoral process back into doubt” and result, in part, in confusion for election officials.

But in a Feb. 1 motion to expedite the case, plaintiffs’ lawyers pointed to a “waning window to access relief.”

“Even if this (Supreme) Court’s resolution of the matter runs up to the qualifying deadline, there is ample room to adjust that deadline to ensure the state’s Constitution is vindicated,” the motion said. “In fact, in redistricting years, the state’s candidate qualifying deadline is typically held in June, as it was in 2022.”

The case centers on a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was overhauled during an April 2022 special legislative session. The overhaul put the district, Congressional District 5, in the Jacksonville area, and white Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

The plaintiffs argued the overhaul violated part of a 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, that prohibited drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” While a Leon County circuit judge agreed with the plaintiffs, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ruled in favor of the state.

The Supreme Court issued an order Jan. 24 saying it will hear the case. The order gave lawyers for voting rights groups until Feb. 28 to file an initial brief, followed by 30 days for the state’s attorneys to file what is known as an answer brief. The voting rights groups would then have 30 days to file another brief, and the order raised the possibility of the state having 30 days to file an additional brief.

The order did not set a date for oral arguments, which will follow the filing of briefs. It said attorneys “will be notified of the oral argument date approximately 60 days prior to oral argument.” Also, rulings can take months after oral arguments, and a decision\ in favor of the plaintiffs could require the Legislature to convene to draw a new congressional map.

In the motion to expedite the case, the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked for changes to the schedule that would lead to oral arguments during the first week of April.

But the state’s attorneys Friday urged the court to reject the motion.

“To begin with, expediting proceedings would be fruitless because there is no reasonable likelihood that the (Supreme) Court will issue its ruling in time to affect the 2024 elections,” the state’s attorneys wrote.

Meanwhile, a separate challenge to the redistricting plan remains pending in federal court. That case raises federal constitutional issues.

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