Voting rights groups want a court to take another look at whether Florida redistricting was racially discriminatory

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

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Voting rights groups want a federal court to reconsider a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of a Florida congressional redistricting plan, pointing to the “outsized” role that Gov. Ron DeSantis played in pushing the plan through the Legislature.

Attorneys for groups such as Common Cause Florida and the Florida NAACP and other plaintiffs filed a motion Wednesday urging a three-judge panel to look again at whether the redistricting plan was passed in 2022 with a racially discriminatory motive.

The panel on March 27 ruled that the plaintiffs had not met a key test of showing that the Legislature acted with racial motivation. The case has focused heavily on DeSantis’ role, but the judges’ opinion said the “plaintiffs freely concede there is no direct or circumstantial evidence of racially discriminatory purpose on the part of any member of the Florida Legislature.”

Wednesday’s motion for reconsideration, however, said the judges incorrectly found that DeSantis’ intent “was all but irrelevant.” The lawsuit alleged that the map involved intentional discrimination and violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.

“First, the court erred by treating the governor as an outsider to the legislative process,” Wednesday’s motion said. “Unlike private citizens advocating for legislative action, the governor is himself a state actor directly subject to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He may not discriminate on the basis of race when using state authority, any more than the Legislature can. No case law supports the notion that, where multiple state actors act jointly to bring about the challenged conduct, all of them must be driven by illegal consideration of race.”

The case centers on the overhaul of North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. The past configuration of the district stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, and incorporated areas with sizable numbers of Black voters.

DeSantis vetoed a redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and muscled through a replacement that put District 5 in the Jacksonville area. White Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

DeSantis argued that keeping a district similar to the former shape of Congressional District 5 would be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

The March 27 opinion shared by Judges Adalberto Jordan, M. Casey Rodgers and Allen Winsor focused on the Legislature’s role in passing the plan. Unlike more typical lawsuits overseen by a single judge, redistricting cases are handled by three-judge panels.

“There are two relevant state actors in this case — the Florida Legislature, which passed the enacted map, and the governor, who proposed, pushed for, and signed the enacted map into law,” the opinion said. “It is not enough for the plaintiffs to show that the governor was motivated in part by racial animus, which we will assume without deciding for purposes of our decision. Rather, they also must prove that the Florida Legislature itself acted with some discriminatory purpose when adopting and passing the enacted map. This they have not done.”

But in Wednesday’s motion, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that DeSantis “exercised legislative authority” in the redistricting process. They wrote that “for purposes of Florida law, the power to veto or approve legislative enactments are legislative powers, not executive ones, and when the governor vetoes or approves a bill, he is acting legislatively — just as the Senate and House of Representatives are when they vote on legislation.”

“The governor’s actions here were not an outside influence that must be ratified, like the lobbying of a bigoted faction of private citizens, but an important exercise of unambiguously legislative power itself,” the motion said.

The federal court case has been one of two legal challenges to the redistricting plan. The state’s 1st District Court of Appeal on Dec. 1 rejected a challenge based on part of the Florida Constitution. Plaintiffs have taken that case to the Florida Supreme Court, where it remains pending.

Meanwhile, congressional candidates this week qualified to run in the 2024 elections, which will use the districts passed in 2022.

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