Judge rules FL’s congressional district plan is unconstitutional, biased against Blacks

By: - May 11, 2022 4:17 pm

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

A state trial court judge has decided that Florida’s new congressional redistricting plan is unconstitutional to the extent it eliminates prospects that Blacks in North Florida will be able to elect a candidate of their choice.

Judge Layne Smith. Credit: FL Second Judicial Circuit

“I am finding that the enacted map is unconstitutional under the Fair District Amendment … because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice,” Circuit Judge Layne Smith said during a court hearing conducted via Zoom on Wednesday.

The result would represent a major blow to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who pressured the Florida Legislature to approve new congressional district boundaries that likely would cut the number of Black members of Congress from Florida from four to two and give Republicans 20 of the 28 districts to which Florida is entitled under the 2020 U.S. Census.

But for that to happen, and for the decision to apply during this year’s elections, first it has to hold up on appeal. Smith said he hopes to issue a formal opinion no later than Thursday; that would send the case to Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, which could decide the case itself or certify it immediately to the Florida Supreme Court.

“It’s important that we get this to the next step so that this can be decided as quickly as possible, so that, whatever the answer is finally, ultimately, there is time for the [election] administrators to put into action whatever needs to be done to make it happen,” he said.

The judge, a DeSantis appointee, said he planned to approve a map more or less reinstating the congressional district now held by Democrat Al Lawson. It stretches from Duval County to Gadsden County, including neighborhoods within Tallahassee, covering North Florida’s former plantation zone, where descendants of enslaved people still live.

The judge cited the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, and Florida’s Fair Districts amendments to the state Constitution, which prioritize the ability of racial and language minorities to elect candidates of their choice above secondary matters like drawing compact districts.

Florida precedent

He also said he was deferring to the Florida Supreme Court, which designed an earlier version of the district at issue following the 2010 Census.

The decision came after the Florida Legislature approved the state’s congressional maps during a special session last month. That session led to an extraordinary protest in the state House chamber.

Black Democrats loudly chanted, wore t-shirts that read “Stop the Black Attack,” and staged a sit-in on April 21 that disrupted debate over African-American representation in the congressional redistricting process that eliminated two Black seats.

“When Black votes are under attack, we stand up and fight back,” the crowd of Black lawmakers yelled that day on the House floor.

DeSantis has prioritized compactness in vetoing a Legislative map that preserved a version of the Black-access district contained wholly within Duval County. He called the Legislature’s alternative “racial gerrymandering.” The Legislature caved during a special session last month.

In a written statement, DeSantis communications chief Taryn Fenske made the same point.

“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level. 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.,” Fenske 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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