Groups urge justices to reject Florida’s redistricting plan

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

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Alleging an “egregious misreading of Florida’s Constitution,” voting-rights groups late Wednesday argued the state Supreme Court should overturn a decision that upheld a congressional redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lawyers for the groups filed a 70-page brief contending, in part, the 1st District Court of Appeal on Dec. 1 disregarded Supreme Court precedents when it backed the redistricting plan.

The dispute centers on a 2022 plan that overhauled a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson and on a 2010 state constitutional amendment that prohibited drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” After the district was overhauled, white Republicans won all North Florida congressional districts in the 2022 elections.

“This is a straightforward case that calls for a straightforward application of this (Supreme) Court’s precedent,” the brief said. “There is no dispute that Florida’s enacted plan diminishes the voting power of Black Floridians in North Florida. There is no dispute that under this (Supreme) Court’s prior precedent that diminishment violates the Florida Constitution.”

The Supreme Court said in January that it will take up the case, with the voting rights groups filing an initial brief Wednesday shortly before midnight. The state now has 30 days to file an initial brief. The Supreme Court has not said when it will hear arguments.

DeSantis in 2022 vetoed a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and muscled through a replacement that included revamping the disputed Congressional District 5.

The former District 5, used in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections, stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, and incorporated areas with sizable Black populations. DeSantis argued that keeping such a district would be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

But the voting-rights groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equal Ground Education Fund, and other plaintiffs challenged the 2022 redistricting plan, focusing on what is known as the “non-diminishment” clause in the 2010 state constitutional amendment. That amendment, dubbed the Fair Districts amendment, set standards for redistricting.

Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh agreed with the plaintiffs that the redistricting plan violated the Fair Districts amendment. But the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected that decision in December, citing the sprawling shape of the district that elected Lawson..

The appeals court’s main opinion said protection offered under the non-diminishment clause and under the federal Voting Rights Act “is of the voting power of ‘a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.’” It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

“At its heart, the plaintiffs’ claim is based on a false premise … that minority voters living hundreds of miles apart in totally different communities, not joined in any reasonably configured geographically area, are entitled to proportional representation merely because they were once included together in former CD-5 (Congressional District 5) by court order for three election cycles,” the decision said.

The plaintiffs’ brief Wednesday, however, cited Florida Supreme Court decisions in 2015 that led to the district that elected Lawson. It said the “Florida Constitution expressly prohibits redistricting plans that diminish minority voters’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

“The facts in this case are undisputed,” the brief said. “Black voters in North Florida had the ability to elect their candidates of choice under the prior redistricting plan, and the enacted (2022) plan eliminates that ability. Under this (Supreme) Court’s unambiguous legal standard and the stipulated facts, petitioners (the plaintiffs) proved a textbook violation of the non-diminishment provision.”

The brief, which also disputed DeSantis’ equal-protection arguments, asked the Supreme Court to order a redistricting plan that would include a district similar to the former District 5.

The Supreme Court on Feb. 12 denied a request from the plaintiffs to speed up the handling of the case and hold arguments during the first week of April. That means the disputed plan likely will remain in effect for this year’s elections, as a qualifying period is scheduled April 22 to April 26 for congressional candidates.

A separate challenge to the redistricting plan is pending in federal court. That case involves federal constitutional issues.

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