The Florida Senate President and Secretary of State dispute that Tampa Bay districts are racially gerrymandered

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Sea oats and Tampa Bay. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Oct. 2009).

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Trying to fend off a challenge to a 2022 redistricting plan, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and Secretary of State Cord Byrd this week disputed that two Tampa Bay-area Senate districts were racially gerrymandered.

Attorneys for Passidomo, R-Naples, and Byrd filed answers to a lawsuit that alleges the districts were gerrymandered and violate constitutional equal-protection rights.

“The allegation that race was the predominant factor in the drawing of the challenged districts is denied,” Passidomo’s attorneys wrote in an answer filed Tuesday in federal court in Tampa.

The lawsuit, filed last month on behalf of five residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg, focuses on Senate District 16 and Senate District 18. Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Black Democrat from St. Petersburg, represents District 16, which crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. White Republican Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach represents District 18, which is made up of part of Pinellas County.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the districts are unconstitutional, an injunction to block elections from being held in the districts and a ”remedial decree that ensures plaintiffs live and vote in constitutional districts.”

“The state drew these districts purportedly to avoid diminishing Black voters’ ability to elect representatives of their choice in District 16, but the state unnecessarily used race to disregard traditional, race-neutral redistricting considerations,” the 31-page lawsuit said. “And far from advancing representation, the enacted districts dilute Black voters’ power. The state could have drawn these districts to both avoid the diminishment of Black voting power and respect traditional redistricting criteria. Instead, the state engaged in racial gerrymandering that unconstitutionally abridges plaintiffs’ rights to the equal protection of the laws.”

But attorneys for Passidomo and Byrd pushed back against such arguments this week. As an example, Byrd’s attorneys acknowledged that “District 16 contains land areas on both sides of Tampa Bay,” but they denied that “its drawing was done for racial or unconstitutional reasons.”

Lawmakers gave final approval to the redistricting plan in February 2022, and the districts were used in the 2022 elections. Rouson received 63.9 percent of the vote in District 16, while DiCeglie received 56.9 percent in District 18. Neither seat is slated to be on this year’s ballot.

While the answers filed this week did not provide detailed arguments, Passidomo’s attorneys also signaled that they take issue with the lawsuit being filed more than two years after the map was approved. They argued that the plaintiffs’ “requested relief is barred” by a legal doctrine that involves unreasonable delays in filing claims.

Tuesday’s answers came two weeks after a three-judge panel rejected a request by Byrd and Passidomo to dismiss the lawsuit.

Byrd’s attorneys argued in a motion to dismiss the case that the plaintiffs could not meet a legal test of showing a “discriminatory effect” as part of a vote-dilution claim under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Equal protection is part of the 14th Amendment. Passidomo joined Byrd’s motion.

But in allowing the case to move forward, the three-judge panel drew a distinction between a vote-dilution claim and a racial-gerrymandering claim. While Byrd’s attorneys cited the vote-dilution issue, the order said the lawsuit was a racial gerrymandering claim.

Unlike typical lawsuits, three-judge panels hear redistricting cases. The Senate case has been assigned to Andrew Brasher, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals, and Charlene Edwards Honeywell and Thomas Barber, judges in the federal Middle District of Florida.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit was filed last week challenging the constitutionality of state House and congressional districts in the Miami area and Southwest Florida. That lawsuit also alleges districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

In addition, a challenge is pending at the Florida Supreme Court to the congressional map. That case involves state constitutional questions and focuses on a North Florida district that was overhauled.

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