State defends North Florida's congressional map

Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration is asking the state Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan that DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022, saying it properly prevented a racially gerrymandered district in North Florida.

Prosecutors argued in a 76-page brief that the Supreme Court should reject arguments from voting rights groups that the plan violates part of the state constitution. The focus of the case is Congressional District 5 in North Florida, which historically elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was re-elected in 2022 – and subsequently elected a white Republican.

The state's statement said the 2022 plan declines to “perpetuate” a gerrymander that has historically spanned District 5 from Jacksonville to Gadsden County west of Tallahassee and attracted significant numbers of Black voters. The redesigned district is in the Jacksonville area.

“Plaintiffs (the voting rights groups and other plaintiffs) would hold that race is the top priority in Florida’s redistricting efforts,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “The Florida Constitution does not force this outcome, and the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t allow it anyway.”

The plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Equal Ground Education Fund, went to the Supreme Court in December after the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the redistricting plan. They argue the plan violates a 2010 state constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of districts, which would “restrict” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

“This is a straightforward case that requires a straightforward application of this (Florida Supreme Court)’s precedent,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued in a Feb. 28 brief. “There is no doubt that Florida’s adopted plan diminishes the voting rights of Black Floridians in North Florida. There is no doubt that under the prior precedent of this (Supreme) Court, this disparagement violates the Florida Constitution.”

DeSantis vetoed a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2022 and pushed through a replacement that included redistricting District 5. DeSantis argued that maintaining a district similar to the previous District 5 would be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Leon County District Court, claiming the plan violated the so-called “non-abatement clause” of the 2010 constitutional amendment. District Judge J. Lee Marsh agreed with the plaintiffs, but the 1st District Court of Appeals rejected that decision in December, citing the expansive shape of the district that chose Lawson.

The appeals court's main opinion stated that the protections afforded by the non-abatement clause of the state constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act “affect the voting rights of a 'politically contiguous, geographically isolated minority group'.” Much of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesion.

Monday's brief was filed on behalf of Secretary of State Cord Byrd, one of the named defendants in the case. The lawmaker is also a defendant and was given until May 6 to file his brief with the Supreme Court.

Monday's brief supported the appeals court's position on the sprawling nature of the former Congressional District 5. The state's attorneys wrote that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that black voters in Benchmark CD-5 (the former district controlled by Lawson) have the Art of “geographically compact community” protected by the non-mitigation clause.”

The brief also focused on equal protection arguments as it attacked the possibility of a racial gerrymander.

“Because petitioners’ non-abatement theory would force the State to maintain a grotesque racist gerrymander – Benchmark CD-5 – petitioners must demonstrate that the gerrymander is narrowly tailored to a compelling interest,” the brief states. “The only interest they cite is compliance with Florida’s non-abatement clause. But compliance with state law cannot justify denying equal protections to thousands of Florida voters.”

However, in their February letter, plaintiffs' lawyers cited 2015 Florida Supreme Court decisions that led the district to choose Lawson. The brief states: “The Florida Constitution expressly prohibits redistricting plans that limit the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice.”

“The facts of this case are undisputed,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote. “Black voters in North Florida had the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice under the previous redistricting plan, and the adopted plan (2022) eliminates that opportunity.” Under the clear rule of law of this (Supreme) Court and the established facts, plaintiffs have one textbook violation of the non-reduction clause has been proven.”

The Supreme Court said in January it would hear the case but has not scheduled hearings. With a candidate qualifying period for congressional elections taking place last week, the controversial map will be used in this fall's election.

A federal court on March 27 rejected a separate challenge to the restructuring plan. Last week, the plaintiffs asked the court to reconsider the decision, which involves questions of the federal constitution.

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7. For more information, see WUSF 89.7.

Anna Harden

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