Constitutional Issues Teed Up in Florida Redistricting Fight
TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis last year took control of congressional redistricting, he argued that keeping a sprawling North Florida district designed to elect a Black candidate would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Now, a court will decide if he was right.
Attorneys for the state and a coalition of voting-rights groups filed an agreement late Friday that narrowed the issues in a legal battle about a congressional redistricting plan that DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022. The plan dramatically redrew a district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson, helping lead to Republicans being elected across North Florida in November.
But attorneys for the state contend that applying the state Constitution’s so-called “non-diminishment” standard to the North Florida district would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That mirrors a DeSantis administration position last year that the Equal Protection Clause prevented the Legislature from using race as a “predominant factor” in drawing the district.
In the agreement Friday narrowing issues in the case, the state acknowledged that “if the non-diminishment standard applies to North Florida, then there is no Black-performing district in North Florida under the enacted map.”
But the agreement said the state maintains “that the Equal Protection Clause would nonetheless prohibit the creation of a Black-performing district in North Florida.”
If the voting-rights groups win the court battle, the agreement said the “appropriate remedy to the diminishment in North Florida” would be to essentially recreate the district that elected Lawson in the past. That district, Congressional District 5, stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee.
Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh was scheduled to start a trial in the case on Aug. 21. But the agreement filed Friday proposed holding arguments Aug. 24. A court docket Monday morning did not indicate whether that proposed date had been approved. Representatives of the plaintiffs, including groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equal Ground Education Fund, Inc., released the agreement Saturday.DeSantis got the redistricting plan approved during an April 2022 special legislative session after he vetoed a proposal passed by lawmakers. The plan helped lead in the November elections to Florida Republicans increasing their number of U.S. House members from 16 to 20.
The plan drew challenges in Leon County circuit court and in federal court. The Leon County case also alleged that the plan diminished minority voting strength in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay region, but the agreement reached Friday narrowed the case to only focus on the North Florida district.
The lawsuit said the redistricting plan “does not even purport to” comply with the 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair District amendment.
“Both Governor DeSantis and the Legislature well knew that dismantling CD-5 would diminish the voting power of Black residents within North Florida and violate the plain command of the Florida Constitution,” the lawsuit said. “From the beginning, Governor DeSantis publicly stated that he would not accept any congressional plan that contained a configuration of CD-5 that protected Black voters in North Florida from diminishment.”
But the DeSantis administration contends that stretching a district across North Florida to help elect a Black candidate would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
“When applying the (non-diminishment) provision in North Florida to draw an east-west, minority-performing congressional district, or any other minority-performing district, race inherently predominates,” attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd, a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote in a February court document. “Drawing congressional districts in this manner is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Marsh’s decision in the case likely will not be the last word. The agreement filed Friday said that “any written order from this court declaring the enacted map to be valid or invalid or enjoining the administration of elections in any district contained in the enacted map can be immediately appealed and that any notice of appeal will be filed within two calendar days of this court issuing its written order.”
The agreement said the two sides also will ask that the case go quickly to the Florida Supreme Court, effectively bypassing a ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal. It also said they will seek a Supreme Court decision by Dec. 31, which would allow lawmakers to take up the issue, if necessary, during the legislative session that will start in January.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor is scheduled Sept. 26 to start a trial in the federal-court challenge to the redistricting plan.
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