OVERTURNED: Judge spikes Gov. DeSantis’s Florida redistricting map that axed minority district

By: John Kennedy

Special from Capital Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK–FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s new congressional boundaries drawn by Gov. Ron DeSantis were blocked from being used in this year’s elections Wednesday by a Leon County circuit judge who ruled they discriminate against Black voters in North Florida.

The decision, certain to be appealed by the state, brings a new level of at least temporary chaos to this year’s election season, with candidate qualifying for congressional seats in Florida only a month away.

At the heart of the case is the current Congressional District 5 held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat whose seat stretches from Jacksonville to the Tallahassee area, and includes Gadsden County, the state’s only majority black county.

The new map, crafted by the Republican governor and approved by the Florida Legislature last month, scatters more than 370,000 Black voters who had been in Lawson’s heavily Black, Democratic-leaning district across four North Florida districts.

None of the districts would have a large Black voting population, and all four would be Republican-leaning, part of a push by the governor to expand the number of GOP members of Congress from Florida.

“I do find persuasive the arguments that were made about the diminishment of African-American votes….to the other districts where they’re now spreading,” said Judge Layne Smith, a DeSantis appointee, who issued his ruling after a three-hour hearing Wednesday.

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John Devaney, who argued the plaintiffs’ case for the Florida League of Women Voters and three minority advocacy organizations, said the DeSantis map left North Florida Black voters without enough voting strength to elect a candidate of their choice.

He argued the move violated Florida’s voter-approved Fair Districts constitutional amendments, which prohibit drawing legislative or congressional boundaries that for Black and Hispanic voters, “diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

‘Classic cracking’ of Black voters

“It’s classic cracking,” Devaney said. “Let’s take that Black population and let’s split it up into four districts where they have no voting power. And that’s what we’ve got.”

He said it was important that Smith stop the plan from going into effect.

“Once an election occurs, there’s no do-over,” said Devaney, an attorney with the Democratic-allied, Washington, D.C. firm, Perkins Coie. “The harm is done. The only way to protect against that harm is to assure that a constitutional voting map is put in place before the election actually occurs.”

A North Florida map that keeps the Congressional District 5 in its current, Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee contours was proposed in court testimony by Harvard University political scientist and redistricting expert Steven Ansolabehere. It’s similar to a plan that was approved by the Florida Legislature but vetoed by DeSantis, action that led lawmakers to support the governor’s map last month.

Ansolabehere’s plan was put forward as a substitute map Smith said he will recommend using in his order, which will probably not be finalized until Thursday or Friday. Smith acknowledged wanting to give DeSantis-appointee, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Florida’s top elections official, adequate time to appeal.

The Tallahassee-area First District Court of Appeal could either take up the matter, or send the congressional redistricting case to the Florida Supreme Court.

“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level,” said Taryn Fenske, a DeSantis spokeswoman. “We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it.”

Lawson hailed Smith’s ruling.

“The judge recognizes that this map is unlawful and diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect representatives of their choice,” Lawson said. “DeSantis is wrong for enacting this Republican-leaning map that is in clear violation of the U.S. and state constitutions.

Time is tight

But all involved in the case agreed Wednesday that time is tight, with federal candidate qualifying set for June 13-17 and county elections supervisors saying they needed a map finalized by the end of this month so that precincts could be reconfigured and other matters settled.

The Florida League of Women Voters joined with Equal Ground Education Fund, Florida Rising Together, Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, and a handful of voters from across the state in seeking the injunction to stop the new CD-5 boundaries from going into effect, which effectively puts on hold the entire map.

Mohammad Jazil, attorney for Lee, the secretary of state, defended the approach by DeSantis and the Legislature as constitutional and superior to the current wide-ranging district.

“My friend for the plaintiffs is asking for this court to draw a congressional map that goes 200 miles from east to west to connect the Black population in Florida’s First Coast…with a Black population in the Big Bend,” Jazil said.

Jazil added that what the League of Women Voters and others are seeking relies on an interpretation of the state constitution’s prohibition against diminishing Black voting strength which conflicts with federal equal protection standards.

DeSantis relies on North Carolina case

DeSantis is relying on a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case that found it unconstitutional to racially gerrymander a seat, except in narrow instances, which Lawson’s Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee district may not meet.

That North Carolina ruling came two years after Congressional District 5 was created by the Florida Supreme Court, which had taken over the map-making in the last round of once-every-decade redistricting because of constitutional violations by Republican lawmakers who drew the state’s initial maps.

“The law has also moved in the federal context …emphasizing the need to have race neutral apportionment plans,” Jazil said.

While scattering Black voters in North Florida, the DeSantis congressional map creates 20 districts likely to elect Republicans, leaving eight considered Democratic leaning. Two of the four districts that have elected Black Democrats would be eliminated in the plan.

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Florida’s 27 congressional districts are currently split 16-11, with Republicans controlling most seats. The state is getting another district in Congress this year because of population gains in the 2020 Census.

But with control of Congress at stake in this fall’s elections, DeSantis could emerge as a hero to Republicans nationally if he is seen as having helped boost the GOP’s chances of winning command because of enhanced numbers out of Florida.

Still, the news and data analysis site FiveThirtyEight, which is closely following redistricting across the nation, has called Florida’s congressional map “darn close to the most egregiously partisan map in the country.”

Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Smith’s ruling follows an historic pattern.

“When government overreach tries to suppress Black voters, the courts are our last line of defense to preserve justice and equity,” Burney-Clark said.

She added, “No Floridian – including Governor DeSantis – is above the law. This is one step forward in the fight to protect Black voters.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport