Senate Redistricting Challenge Gets Go-Ahead

TALLAHASSEE — A three-judge panel Tuesday refused to toss out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a 2022 Florida Senate redistricting plan, pointing to plaintiffs’ arguments that two districts in the Tampa Bay area were racially gerrymandered.

The panel of federal judges issued a six-page order that denied a request by attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, to dismiss the case, which was filed April 10 in Tampa.

The lawsuit alleges that Senate District 16 and Senate District 18 are gerrymandered and violate constitutional equal-protection rights. District 16, which is represented by Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Black Democrat from St. Petersburg, crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. White Republican Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach represents District 18, which is made up of part of Pinellas County.

In a motion to dismiss the case last month, Byrd’s attorneys argued that the plaintiffs cannot meet a legal test of showing a “discriminatory effect” as part of a vote-dilution claim under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Equal protection is part of the 14th Amendment. Passidomo joined Byrd’s motion.

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But in Tuesday’s order, the judges drew a distinction between a vote-dilution claim and a racial-gerrymandering claim. While Byrd’s attorneys cited the vote-dilution issue, the order said the lawsuit was a racial-gerrymandering claim.

“Defendants (Byrd and Passidomo) argue that plaintiffs failed to state a vote-dilution claim, by not explaining what discriminatory effect the configuration of these districts cause,” the order said. “Defendants are confused. Plaintiffs bring a racial-gerrymandering claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. That sort of claim carries no requirement that a discriminatory effect be alleged. And defendants don’t argue that plaintiffs otherwise fail to state a racial-gerrymandering claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The order said the plaintiffs argue that the two districts “bear standard indicia of racial gerrymandering, like having districts traverse large bodies of water, splitting political communities, and forming non-compact shapes. Plaintiffs allege that legislators and staffers drew these districts with race in mind by packing black voters into District 16 from other places, including District 18, to ensure black voters could choose a representative in District 16 (even at the expense of the remaining black voters in District 18).”

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The order does not determine the outcome of the case but allows it to move forward. Unlike in typical cases, three-judge federal panels hear redistricting lawsuits. The judges in the case are Andrew Brasher, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals, and Charlene Edwards Honeywell and Thomas Barber, judges in the federal Middle District of Florida.

Lawmakers gave final approval to the redistricting plan in February 2022, and the districts were used in the 2022 elections. Rouson received 63.9 percent of the vote in District 16, while DiCeglie received 56.9 percent in District 18. Neither seat is slated to be on this year’s ballot.

Unlike the state’s 2022 congressional redistricting plan, which has spurred heavy litigation, the Senate plan drew relatively little attention until the lawsuit was filed last month.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg, seeks a declaration that the Senate districts are unconstitutional, an injunction to block elections from being held in the districts and a ”remedial decree that ensures plaintiffs live and vote in constitutional districts.”

“The state drew these districts purportedly to avoid diminishing Black voters’ ability to elect representatives of their choice in District 16, but the state unnecessarily used race to disregard traditional, race-neutral redistricting considerations,” the 31-page lawsuit said. “And far from advancing representation, the enacted districts dilute Black voters’ power. The state could have drawn these districts to both avoid the diminishment of Black voting power and respect traditional redistricting criteria. Instead, the state engaged in racial gerrymandering that unconstitutionally abridges plaintiffs’ rights to the equal protection of the laws.”

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