DeSantis congressional map draws lawsuit as governor quietly signs it into law

Complaint alleges violation of FL’s Fair Districts amendments

By: - April 22, 2022 4:21 pm

The Leon County Courthouse on March 11, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

One day after the Florida Legislature approved Gov. Ron DeSantis’ highly contested congressional redistricting plan, a legal challenge has landed in state trial court in Tallahassee.

Meanwhile, DeSantis said during a news conference in Hialeah Gardens that he had signed the plan into law, although there was no public announcement or bill-signing ceremony.

“We also did sign the congressional reapportionment in Tallahassee earlier today, so that’s going to be transmitted,” the governor said.

The governor’s press office issued a terse formal notice via email about the three bills signed at 4:57 p.m. and a followup at 5:17 with a few more details.

He was in South Florida to sign legislation limiting discussions about racism and sexism in schools or at work. While there, DeSantis also signed legislation targeting The Walt Disney Co. for opposing his legislation limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.

The lawsuit alleges violations of Florida’s Fair Districts amendments, which forbid the Legislature from drawing political districts to favor incumbents or political parties or diminish the ability of racial or language minorities to elect representatives of their choice.

The DeSantis plan gives Republicans a 20-8 advantage in Florida congressional races and destroys or diminishes Black-access seats in North and Central Florida — that is, districts in which Blacks vote in sufficient numbers to elect Black members of Congress.

“The DeSantis plan also intentionally favors the Republican Party at nearly every turn, eliminating three Democratic seats and transforming competitive seats into Republican-leaning ones,” the complaint reads.

“And in so doing, it needlessly produces noncompact districts that split geographic and political boundaries. As Princeton University Professor Sam Wang described, the DeSantis plan will result in ‘one of the most extreme gerrymanders in the country’ — precisely the result Florida voters sought to eradicate in passing the Fair Districts amendment.”

Eric Holder involved

Named plaintiffs include Black Voters Matter, Equal Ground, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and Florida Rising, plus 12 individual voters. The National Redistricting Foundation, founded by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to combat gerrymandering, is supporting the effort.

Named as defendants are Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Attorney General Ashley Moody, the state House and Senate, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and the heads of the House and Senate reapportionment committees.

Eric Holder. Credit: U.S. Department of Justice

“Republicans across the country tried — and completely failed — to gerrymander their way to a congressional majority,” Holder said in a written statement.

“In response to this defeat, DeSantis has bullied the Legislature into enacting a map that does not allow for a fair electoral contest, and instead draws Republicans an illegitimate and illegal partisan advantage that they have not earned from the voters. And it does so at the expense of black voters in Florida who are being denied fair representation in Congress,” he said.

Maps the Legislature drew during its regular session this year would have preserved four Black-access districts and four for Hispanics. DeSantis insisted CD 5, stretching from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, and including parts of Tallahassee, amounted to a racial gerrymander because it wasn’t compact.

CD 10, in Central Florida, no longer had enough Black voters to qualify as an access district, an aide to the governor argued in presenting the plan during a special session that concludes noisily on Thursday having lasted three days.

In addition, the complaint cites boundaries in Tampa Bay and South Florida designed to diminish Black and Democratic voters to the benefit of Republicans.

Five counts

The complaint raises five counts under the Fair District amendments: diminishment of minorities’ ability to elect; intent to abridge and diminish minority voting strength; intent to favor or disfavor a political party; drawing non-compact districts; and improper political and geographic boundary splits.

Under those amendments, compactness and avoiding splits of political and geography boundaries are secondary to the Tier One imperatives to eschew political favoritism or minority voting diminishment.

“The map that the Legislature passed is just a straight up violation is a thumb in the thumb in the nose at the voters of Florida who passed Amendment 6 in 2010,” Marc Elias, a Democratic elections lawyer whose office is litigating the lawsuit, said during a Twitter Spaces chat on Friday.

There's, like, no fact in dispute that this diminishes black voters ability to elect representatives of their choice.

– Marc Elias

“There’s, like, no fact in dispute that this diminishes black voters ability to elect representatives of their choice, and I would go so far as to say that was the point of what DeSantis is doing here.”

He accused the governor of seeking to overturn Fair Districts in the courts. (DeSantis’ appointments to the Florida Supreme Court have rendered is solidly conservative; Donald Trump’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court have done the same.)

For now, the complaint notes that, since 2010, “states across the country have followed Florida’s lead by adopting similar constitutional amendments, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to cite the Fair Districts Amendment as an exemplar of ‘provisions in state statutes and state constitutions [that] can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply’ to ensure that ‘complaints about districting’ are not ‘condemn[ed] …. to echo into a void.’”

A lawsuit pending already in federal court in Tallahassee, asking for a judge-drawn map on the ground that the governor and Legislature were at an impasse, has been mooted by passage of the DeSantis map, Elias said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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