By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Monday refused to speed up a challenge to a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022, likely meaning the disputed map will remain in effect for this year’s elections.
The court issued a one-sentence order that did not explain its reasons for denying a request from voting rights groups and other plaintiffs to shorten timeframes and hold arguments during the first week of April.
But with a qualifying period scheduled from April 22 to April 26 for congressional candidates, lawyers for the plaintiffs acknowledged in a Feb. 1 motion that the disputed map likely would remain in effect for this year’s elections unless the Supreme Court expedited the case. In addition to seeking early-April arguments, the motion included requesting a shorter schedule for filing briefs.
“Without an expedited briefing schedule, petitioners and Floridians will again vote under a redistricting plan of questionable legality,” the motion said, referring to the disputed map also being used in the 2022 elections.
The Supreme Court order came after attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Legislature filed a document Friday objecting to speeding up the case. The state’s attorneys wrote that a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling, which upheld the redistricting plan, 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’s attorneys wrote. “Expediting proceedings now would only thrust the state’s 2024 electoral process back into doubt” and result, in part, in confusion for election officials.
The case centers on a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was overhauled in the redistricting plan passed 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 argue 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 on Dec. 1 overturned that decision and ruled in favor of the state.
The Supreme Court issued an order on 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 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 arguments, and the Legislature could be required to convene to draw a new congressional map if the plaintiffs win the case.
A separate challenge to the redistricting plan is pending in federal court. That case involves federal constitutional issues.