Florida’s controversial congressional districts are once again facing legal scrutiny, as a large panel of judges in Florida’s First District Court of Appeal deliberated on Tuesday whether to overturn a lower court decision from last month. This decision will not only impact the citizens of Florida but also potentially alter the delicate balance of power in Congress.
The morning’s oral arguments saw nearly every judge from the First DCA in attendance, attentively listening to attorneys representing the state and Black voting rights groups. The judges posed numerous questions, seeking clarity and insight into the case.
The plaintiffs aimed to uphold a lower court’s ruling from September, which called for a redraw of Florida’s current congressional map. Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, in his decision, expressed concerns that the boundaries of the latest map, supported by the governor, undermined the voting power of Black individuals in the state. Jyoti Jasrasaria, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued, “There was always a historically performing district for Black voters in North Florida.”
However, lawyers representing Florida’s secretary of state and legislature countered the plaintiffs’ claims, asserting that the current map is fair and in compliance with the law. Henry Whitaker, representing Secretary of State Cord Byrd, 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.”
The heart of the dispute lies in the former district of former U.S. Representative Al Lawson, Congressional District 5, which was reconfigured by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015. In 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis introduced the current map, dividing Lawson’s territory into four smaller districts after rejecting two options from the Legislature. Consequently, what was once a reliably Democratic territory elected four white Republicans during the midterms.
Governor DeSantis voiced his opposition to gerrymandering based on race, asserting, “We are not going to have a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin. That is wrong. That is not the way we’ve governed in the State of Florida.”
While Circuit Judge Marsh agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the change in districts diminished Black voting power and violated Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, some appellate judges expressed skepticism. Judge Bradford L. Thomas questioned whether a plaintiff could succeed in defending a non-compact, oddly shaped district awarded by a state court under Section Five.
Neither group of attorneys involved in the case offered any comments following the day’s arguments. However, those advocating for a redraw of the map remained hopeful that it would occur, potentially before the 2024 elections. Genesis Robinson, representing Equal Ground Florida, one of the groups challenging the current map, emphasized the importance of fair representation, stating, “Unless you live in South Florida, and you’re a person of color—a Black person—you don’t have the ability to elect a candidate of your choice. That’s a problem.”
Although no specific timeline has been provided for the appellate panel’s ruling, the approaching election is expected to factor into the decision-making process. Additionally, a federal three-judge panel is expected to issue a ruling on a similar case within the U.S. court system before the end of the year. The outcome of that case may ultimately be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court.