Appeals court evaluates dispute on Florida’s congressional districts

In a battle over the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Governor Ron DeSantis last year, an appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday, with some judges showing skepticism towards a challenge filed by voting rights groups. The 1st District Court of Appeal took up the case after a ruling by a Leon County circuit judge found the plan to be in violation of a 2010 state constitutional amendment that established redistricting standards.

The focus of the case revolves around the overhaul of North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which previously elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. The voting rights groups and other plaintiffs argue that the overhaul violated a portion of the constitutional amendment that prohibited the drawing of districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to elect representatives of their choice. As a result of the overhaul, white Republicans were elected in all of North Florida’s congressional districts in the 2022 elections.

However, state Solicitor General Henry Whitaker argued before the appeals court that lawmakers had drawn a “race-neutral map” and that maintaining a district that mirrored the old Lawson district would have been an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Whitaker stated, “The plaintiffs here seek to invalidate the state’s race-neutral map in North Florida and replace it with one that contains a district guaranteeing that Black-preferred candidates always win.”

Jyoti Jasrasaria, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, countered by claiming that the plan drawn by the Legislature and DeSantis last year did not comply with the state Constitution, and that DeSantis had defied a Florida Supreme Court precedent in pushing for the changes. She argued, “The only map that is before this court is the enacted map (approved in 2022), and that map, it’s undisputed, does not comply with the Florida Constitution.”

During the proceedings, some of the judges expressed skepticism towards the plaintiffs’ arguments. Judge Adam Tanenbaum questioned why the appeals court shouldn’t question the 2015 Supreme Court decision that approved the Lawson district, stating, “So why isn’t it fair to question what the Supreme Court did when it was enacting, or approving the enactment, of (a) court-drawn set of districts?” Judge Robert Long also noted that the Florida Supreme Court had not addressed the federal Equal Protection Clause argument and its impact on the interpretation of the 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts amendment.

In 2015, Congressional District 5 spanned from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, encompassing areas with significant Black populations. However, the 2022 plan relocated the district to the Jacksonville area. Governor DeSantis justified the change by citing the equal-protection issue as he assumed control of the congressional redistricting process. His actions resulted in Florida Republicans increasing their number of U.S. House members from 16 to 20 in the November elections.

The lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan was filed last year by voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida Rising Together, along with other plaintiffs. In September, Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled that the revamped Congressional District 5 violated the Fair Districts amendment. The case was quickly appealed by attorneys representing Secretary of State Cord Byrd, the House, and the Senate.

The appeal is being heard by the Tallahassee-based appeals court in an unusual full-court session, with nearly all members participating in Tuesday’s hearing. Typically, three-judge panels handle arguments and issue rulings. Judge Brad Thomas was particularly vocal during the proceedings, stating that the district approved in 2015 was a result of the Supreme Court’s resolution of a partisan gerrymandering issue and should not be considered a benchmark district when determining whether the 2022 plan diminished the ability of Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

It remains uncertain when the appeals court will deliver its ruling. Both sides have requested a decision by November 22, allowing time for the case to potentially reach the Florida Supreme Court and for lawmakers to pass a new redistricting plan, if necessary, during the upcoming legislative session starting in January. A separate challenge to the redistricting plan is also pending in federal court, focusing on federal constitutional issues.

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