A hearing took place on Thursday in Tallahassee, where a Leon County circuit judge listened to arguments in a legal battle concerning a congressional redistricting plan that was pushed through the Florida Legislature last year by Governor Ron DeSantis. The case revolves around conflicting interpretations of both the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
Voting-rights groups argue that DeSantis and the Republican-dominated Legislature violated the state Constitution when they made changes to a North Florida district that had historically elected a Black Democrat. Their position is based on a constitutional amendment from 2010, which prohibited the drawing of districts that would undermine the ability of minority communities to elect representatives of their choice.
During the hearing, Abha Khanna, an attorney representing the voting-rights groups, argued that last year’s redistricting plan effectively suppressed the votes of Black voters in North Florida. She expressed her frustration, stating, “The defendants’ willingness to dismiss this problem as insignificant is an insult to the Florida voters who put this provision in their Constitution to prevent their elected officials from disregarding and suppressing the voting rights of minorities, as had been the case for far too long.”
However, attorneys representing the Florida House, Senate, and Secretary of State Cord Byrd contested these claims, asserting that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits the use of a district that the plaintiffs desire, as it would involve racial gerrymandering. The disputed Congressional District 5, which previously encompassed areas with significant Black populations from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, has now been redrawn under the new map to include the Jacksonville area.
Andy Bardos, an attorney for the House, stated, “All the evidence we have suggests that race was the primary factor considered.” This argument seeks to provide justification for the changes made to the district, which led to the election of white Republican candidates in all North Florida congressional seats in November.
While Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh did not issue a ruling during the hearing, he granted the parties until Wednesday to submit proposed orders. Regardless of Marsh’s decision, it is highly likely that the issue will eventually make its way to the Florida Supreme Court.
During the hearing, Marsh appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments, considering that the Florida Supreme Court had previously approved the configuration of Congressional District 5 in 2015. Responding to an attorney for the secretary of state, Mohammad Jazil, Marsh said, “Are you suggesting that the Florida Supreme Court violated the U.S. Constitution when it approved the previous configuration? I am not going down that path.”
However, Jazil, Bardos, and Daniel Nordby, an attorney for the Senate, contended that the equal-protection issue was not considered by the Florida Supreme Court when reviewing the district in the past. They argued that the Supremacy Clause of the federal Constitution grants precedence to the U.S. Constitution over the Florida Constitution.
Last year, DeSantis cited the equal-protection issue when he took charge of the congressional redistricting process. After vetoing a plan passed by the Legislature, he called for a special session, resulting in a revised map that contributed to the increase in the number of Republican U.S. House members from Florida, from 16 to 20.
The lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan was filed by a coalition of voting-rights groups and individual plaintiffs. They alleged that the plan violated the Fair Districts amendment, a 2010 state constitutional amendment that established criteria for redistricting. While the case initially involved multiple districts, the plaintiffs and state attorneys recently agreed to focus solely on Congressional District 5. In this 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.” However, they maintained that the Equal Protection Clause would still prohibit the creation of a Black-performing district in that region.
Khanna emphasized the importance of the Florida Constitution during the hearing, arguing that the state’s position challenges the very foundations of constitutional law. She urged the judge to reject their claims, declaring, “This court should not entertain such an assault on the Constitution itself.”
In response, the state’s attorneys contended that the plaintiffs’ desire for a district predominantly based on race lacks a “compelling” interest. Bardos pointed out the vast geographical differences between communities in the previous district, highlighting, “What does someone living in downtown Jacksonville have in common with someone living out in Quincy?” He further emphasized that Tallahassee itself differs significantly from both communities.
This report was contributed by News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban.
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