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Judge rejects DeSantis’ congressional map, empowering Black voters in North Florida

A state judge struck down North Florida’s congressional districts Saturday, rebuffing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ open defiance of anti-gerrymandering protections, finding the governor’s map illegally reduced Black voters’ electoral power.

DeSantis had wagered the state’s Fair Districts Amendment against the U.S. Constitution, arguing mandatory protections for Black voters violated the Equal Protection Clause. Second Judicial Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh flatly rejected that gamble, rendering a decision that could reverberate from the halls of Tallahassee to the streets of Jacksonville, paving the way for a new, Democratic district where Jacksonville’s Black voters have more influence.

Marsh refused to bite on DeSantis’ claim that the state’s Fair Districts Amendment violated the U.S. Constitution, saying DeSantis’ secretary of state and the Legislature didn’t even have standing to make such an argument.

Marsh’s ruling was limited to North Florida after plaintiffs abandoned claims that other districts also violated the state Constitution.

This is the congressional districts map submitted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the Legislature that may now be revised to recreate a North Florida district that favors the election of a Black candidate.
This is the congressional districts map submitted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the Legislature that may now be revised to recreate a North Florida district that favors the election of a Black candidate.

The ruling could restore a district similar to the one the Florida Supreme Court ordered last decade that stretched from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and Gadsden County: that district previously elected U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

A joint agreement between the state and plaintiffs should ensure a quicker-than-normal appeals process and potentially allow a new map before 2024’s elections.

FAST-TRACKING THE APPEALS

The state must file a notice of appeal by Monday. Both parties intend to request that the Florida Supreme Court hear the case directly, skipping the usual step of going through a lower appellate court. They will also propose a schedule to allow the state’s highest court to decide by Dec. 31.

Typically, an appeal pauses trial court rulings. However, thanks to a joint agreement made last month, the state has committed to requesting the court lift that automatic hold.

That would allow the court to proceed with a remedial process for a new map while the state appeals the court’s decision.

The Legislature will get a first chance at drawing a new map, which the plaintiffs could challenge. If the Legislature doesn’t draw a new map, both sides agreed to accept a district that spans from Duval to Gadsden, similar to the Legislature’s initial proposal.

In this version of a congressional redistricting map released Nov. 29, 2021, by the Florida House of Representatives, the North Florida district represented by Al Lawson (it’s numbered 3 at the top right) was configured similarly to how it had been.
In this version of a congressional redistricting map released Nov. 29, 2021, by the Florida House of Representatives, the North Florida district represented by Al Lawson (it’s numbered 3 at the top right) was configured similarly to how it had been.

LEGAL STAKES

Last year, DeSantis rejected the Legislature’s proposed congressional plans and drew his own. His version removed a district that would have given Black voters in Jacksonville a better chance to elect their preferred candidates, replacing it with whiter, more Republican districts.

DeSantis conceded that his map did not meet the state’s “non-diminishment” standard, which mandates that new districts must not undermine the voting power of racial minorities.

The protection mirrors language in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and the state argued Marsh should strike down that protection as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

At a hearing last month, Marsh questioned why Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wasn’t defending the state’s Constitution in the case.

Former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson
Former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson

He also expressed sharp skepticism that he could make such an expansive ruling. Marsh said that if he ruled for the state, “this court will be the first in the country to say that even the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.”

If the Florida Supreme Court sides with DeSantis, it could have national implications.

It means the court, a majority of whom DeSantis appointed, would go further than the U.S. Supreme Court has in advancing a legal argument, pushed by many conservatives, that it’s inherently wrong to take race into account, even if it’s done to preserve the political voice of Black voters.

DeSantis’ veto of the initial map and the GOP-controlled Legislature’s decision to adopt his new one sparked an historic protest in the Florida House where Reps. Angie Nixon (D-Jacksonville) and Travaris McCurdy (D-Orlando) led a sit-in to disrupt the proceedings.

After that protest, DeSantis vetoed all of Nixon’s appropriations in the current budget, and legislative leadership put her office in the basement of the Florida Capitol.

Contact Andrew Pantazi of the Tributary at Andrew.Pantazi@jaxtrib.org.

This story is published in partnership with The Tributary, a Florida-based nonprofit newsroom.