Florida Judge Weighs Redistricting Arguments

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge Thursday heard arguments in a battle about a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature last year, amid clashing positions about the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

Voting-rights groups argue that DeSantis and the Republican-dominated Legislature violated the state Constitution in overhauling a North Florida district that in the past elected a Black Democrat. The argument is based on a 2010 constitutional amendment that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

Abha Khanna, an attorney for the groups, told Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh that last year’s redistricting plan eliminated the ability of Black voters in North Florida to elect a representative of their choice.

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“The defendants’ willingness to shrug this off as a problem that is not compelling enough to solve is a stick in the eye of the Florida voters who enshrined this provision into their Constitution to prevent their elected officials from ignoring and suppressing minority voting rights, as had been the case for far too long,” Khanna said.

But attorneys for the Florida House, Senate and Secretary of State Cord Byrd contended that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prevented using a district such as what the plaintiffs want because it would involve racial gerrymandering. The disputed district, Congressional District 5, in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas that had large Black populations.

“All of the indications we have point to race being the predominant consideration,” Andy Bardos, an attorney for the House, said.

Marsh did not issue a ruling, giving the parties until Wednesday to file proposed orders. However Marsh rules, the issue likely will wind up before the Florida Supreme Court.

At times Thursday, Marsh appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments because the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 approved the previous configuration of Congressional District 5.

“You’re saying the Florida Supreme Court violated the U.S Constitution in doing what it did (in approving the previous configuration),” Marsh said to Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the secretary of state. “I’m not going there.”

But Jazil, Bardos, and Daniel Nordby, an attorney for the Senate, said the Florida Supreme Court did not consider the equal-protection issue when reviewing the district in the past. They argued that the U.S. Constitution trumps the Florida Constitution because of what is known as the federal Supremacy Clause.

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DeSantis cited the equal-protection issue as he effectively took control of the congressional redistricting process last year. He vetoed a plan passed by the Legislature and called a special session that ultimately led to a map that helped lead in the November elections to Florida Republicans increasing their number of U.S. House members from 16 to 20.

Congressional District 5 in the past was held by Black Democrat Al Lawson. But under the new map, it was drawn in the Jacksonville area. White Republicans won all of the North Florida congressional seats in November.

A coalition of voting-rights groups and individual plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, alleging that the plan violated the 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts amendment, which set standards for redistricting.

While the case initially addressed other districts, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state this month agreed to narrow it to Congressional District 5. In the agreement, 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 state maintained “that the Equal Protection Clause would nonetheless prohibit the creation of a Black-performing district in North Florida.”

Khanna told Marsh that the case is about the Florida Constitution, describing the state’s arguments as an “assault on the Constitution itself.”

“This court should have none of it,” she said.

But the state’s attorneys said the plaintiffs want a district that would be drawn predominantly based on race and have not shown a “compelling” interest for such a district. Bardos pointed to the sprawling shape of the previous district.

“What does someone living in downtown Jacksonville have in common with someone who is living out in Quincy?” he said. “I think those are two very different communities, and Tallahassee, itself, is a very different community from either.”

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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