A new lawsuit says some Florida House and congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered

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

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A coalition of groups and residents Thursday filed a federal lawsuit contending that state House and congressional districts in the Miami area and Southwest Florida were unconstitutionally gerrymandered in 2022.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Southern District of Florida, targets seven state House districts and four congressional districts, all held by Republicans. It alleges that the Legislature racially gerrymandered Hispanic-performing districts.

“These seats form noncompact shapes, connect disparate neighborhoods, and divide established communities,” the lawsuit said. “In drawing these districts, the Florida Legislature subordinated traditional redistricting criteria and state constitutional requirements to race without narrowly tailoring the district lines to advance a compelling government interest. This racial gerrymandering unconstitutionally abridges plaintiffs’ rights to the equal protection of the laws.”

The lawsuit also alleged the Legislature ignored that “South Florida’s Hispanic community is not politically cohesive.”

“Rather, it is nuanced, multifaceted, and diverse with respect to political behavior and preferences,” the lawsuit said. “But in crafting the challenged districts, the Legislature ignored

this diversity and assumed that Hispanic voters in South Florida were politically homogenous and monolithic. This assumption was false. The Legislature was not entitled to draw race-based districts based on uninformed assumptions of racial sameness.”

The lawsuit came after a legal challenge was filed last month to two state Senate districts in the Tampa Bay region, also alleging racial gerrymandering. In addition, a two-year battle continues to play out about a North Florida congressional district — with courts, at least so far, upholding the district.

The new case involves state House districts 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 118 and 119, which are held, respectively, by Miami-Dade County Republicans Alex Rizo, Vicki Lopez, Demi Busatta Cabrera, Alina Garcia, Daniel Perez, Mike Redondo and Juan Carlos Porras. All, except Garcia, are running for re-election to the House this year.

The lawsuit also involves Congressional districts 19, 26, 27 and 28, which are held, respectively, by Collier County Republican Byron Donalds and Miami-Dade Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart, Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez. All are seeking re-election this year.

As an example of the issues, the lawsuit said Congressional District 26, held by Diaz-Balart, “spans from the Gulf of Mexico to Biscayne Bay, and consists of two distinct population centers separated by the unpopulated Everglades.” The district includes residents of Miami-Dade and Collier counties, with the lawsuit alleging that ”the Legislature explicitly drew CD 26 as a coast-to-coast district for racial reasons, resulting in one more district than necessary crossing the Miami-Dade County line.”

It also said the shape of Congressional District 26 had a spin-off effect on Congressional District 19, which is held by Donalds. With districts needing similar populations, it said Congressional District 19 “was forced to take on a thin tail dribbling down the Gulf Coast from Fort Myers, splitting Collier County in the process.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature redrew districts in 2022 after the once-a-decade U.S. census. The Legislature controlled the shape of state House and Senate districts, while Gov. Ron DeSantis played a key role in the development of the new congressional map.

In addition to federal constitutional issues, lawmakers also faced requirements under 2010 state constitutional amendments, known as the Fair Districts amendments. One of those requirements, which has drawn heavy attention, says new maps cannot “diminish” the ability of racial minorities “to elect representatives of their choice.”

The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that gerrymandering violated equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Attorneys from the ACLU Foundation of Florida and the law firms Vasquez Segarra LLP and O’Melveny & Myers LLP filed the case on behalf of the groups Cubanos Pa’lante, Engage Miami and the FIU ACLU Club and five individual plaintiffs. The named defendants are Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Florida House.

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