By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A state appeal has put on hold a circuit judge’s ruling that a congressional redistricting plan violated the Florida Constitution, as the case could be on a fast track to the state Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Florida House and Senate filed a notice Monday that is a first step in appealing the decision issued Saturday by Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh. Under a procedural rule, the notice triggered an automatic stay of Marsh’s decision while the case continues to play out.
The notice was filed to appeal the decision to the 1st District Court of Appeal, but attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups that challenged the redistricting plan agreed last month to seek what is known as “pass-through jurisdiction” to the Florida Supreme Court.
If granted, that would effectively mean skipping the usual process of litigating at the 1st District Court of Appeal before going to the Supreme Court. The agreement last month said the parties would seek a Supreme Court ruling by Dec. 31.
State lawmakers are scheduled to start the 2024 legislative session in January. A Supreme Court ruling by Dec. 31 would allow them to redraw congressional lines, if necessary, during the session.
The qualifying period for 2024 congressional candidates will be April 22 to April 26, according to the state Division of Elections website.
Marsh issued a 55-page decision that sided with a coalition of voting-rights groups that challenged the redistricting plan, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022.
The lawsuit focuses on North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was overhauled in the redistricting process. White Republicans won all North Florida congressional districts in the November elections after the map was redrawn.
Florida voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts amendment, that set standards for redistricting. Part of that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”
The voting rights groups argued that the 2022 redistricting plan violated the so-called “non-diminishment” standard.
“Under the stipulated facts (in the lawsuit), plaintiffs have shown that the enacted plan results in the diminishment of Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in violation of the Florida Constitution,” Marsh wrote.
The notice of appeal, as is common, does not detail arguments that lawyers for Byrd and the Legislature will make as they challenge Marsh’s ruling.
But DeSantis and the state’s attorneys have argued that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prevented using a district similar to the previous shape of Congressional District 5 because it would involve racial gerrymandering.
The district in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas that had large Black populations. The 2022 plan put the district in the Jacksonville area.