Tampa Bay Senate Districts Challenged

TALLAHASSEE — More than two years after lawmakers redrew the state’s legislative maps, a group of Tampa Bay-area residents Wednesday challenged the constitutionality of two Senate districts that they say “dilute” the power of Black voters.

Attorneys for five residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg filed a lawsuit in federal court in Tampa alleging that Senate District 16 and Senate District 18 are gerrymandered and violate constitutional equal-protection rights.

District 16, which is represented by Sen. Daryl 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.

“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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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.

The lawsuit came after a three-judge federal panel last month rejected a constitutional challenge to a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022. A state appeals court also rejected a separate challenge to the congressional plan, though an appeal of that decision is pending at the Florida Supreme Court.

While the congressional redistricting plan has long been controversial, the Senate map has drawn relatively little attention. Before it passed in 2022, then-Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said his committee sought to avoid mistakes from a past redistricting effort, when the Supreme Court tossed initial congressional and Senate maps.

“I am not saying today that this is the only map that can be drawn to be compliant. … But what I am saying is that the map before us today fulfills the charge that (then-Senate President Wilton Simpson) delivered to the Reapportionment Committee to deliver a map designed to be compliant with our Florida Constitution, with all federal and state statutes.”” Rodrigues, who is now chancellor of the state university system, said in January 2022.

One of the key issues in the redistricting process were 2010 constitutional amendments, known as the Fair Districts amendments, that set standards for redistricting. One of those standards was that new maps not “diminish” the ability of racial minorities “to elect representatives of their choice.”

The lawsuit filed Wednesday said lawmakers appeared to try to comply with the Fair Districts standard in drawing Senate District 16 to avoid the diminishment of Black voting power. The district ties together areas in Tampa and St. Petersburg with large Black populations,

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“That is a laudable and constitutional goal. Complying with Fair Districts’ non-diminishment … requirement is a compelling governmental interest that could justify race-predominant redistricting,” the lawsuit said. “But the Constitution also requires the means by which that interest is achieved be narrowly tailored. The Legislature failed to narrowly tailor its use of race to compliance with Fair Districts.”

The lawsuit said, in part, that the map “sacrificed genuine communities of interest, unnecessarily dividing St. Petersburg and Pinellas County and lumping parts of St. Petersburg and Tampa together in District 16 —simply because they are both predominantly Black areas.”

It also alleged that “racial gerrymandering unjustifiably packed Black voters into District 16, stripping them from adjacent District 18 and reducing their influence there.”

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law and the firm Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig LLP. The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the 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.”


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