Appeals court sides with DeSantis on elimination of Black-access North FL congressional district

Governor wants to disperse Blacks among four white-dominated districts

By: - May 20, 2022 2:04 pm

DeSantis’ map divides North Florida Blacks among four white-dominated congressional districts. Source: Court records

A court order issued Friday means that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan, which dismantles a North Florida district likely to elect a Black candidate, will be used for this year’s primary and general elections, at least for now.

The unsigned order from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal dissolved Circuit Judge Layne Smith’s injunction against using the governor’s map on the ground that it violates the 2010 Fair Districts amendment to the state Constitution, which forbids partisan gerrymandering and diminishment of racial and language minorities’ voting strength.

The intermediate appellate court said that, “based on a preliminary review,” Smith’s ruling didn’t meet the standard for an injunction under the circumstances because it “frustrated the status quo, rather than preserved it.”

That had been a bone of contention in legal arguments filed by the state and the coalition of voting-rights groups fighting the case: Does the status quo represent the DeSantis plan, which the Legislature approved during an April special session; or a plan, ordered by Smith, which preserved a district stretching for about 200 miles from Duval to Gadsden counties that the Florida Supreme Court created in 2015.

That district has been held by a Black man, Al Lawson, ever since. It reflects Florida’s old plantation and sharecropping belt, where many descendants of enslaved people still live. Trial judge Smith cited the area’s history of racial impression in reinstating the district last week.

As it stands now, DeSantis’ congressional plan would divide North Florida Blacks among four districts dominated by white voters, each sitting next to each other: Districts 2, 3, 4, and 5. (See map above.)

“Given the exigency of the circumstances and the need for certainty and continuity as election season approaches, on the court’s own motion, the stay of the temporary injunction is reinstated pending the court’s disposition of the motion for review of the trial court’s vacatur of the automatic stay, which will be forthcoming promptly,” the appeal court said in an unsigned order.

(Translation: State actors are entitled to an automatic stay of judicial rulings affecting the business of government when they file appeals. Smith decided to lift the automatic stay of his ruling striking down the DeSantis map. The First District has now reinstated that stay.)

Procedural path

What happens now is that the First District can decide the merits of the case or pass it along for immediate review by the Florida Supreme Court. Although the 2015 lineup of justices created the district in question — Congressional District 5, in its latest proposed iteration — the high court is much more conservative now because of appointments DeSantis has made since taking office in January 2019.

Primary elections are set for Aug, 23 and the general election for Nov. 8.

The plaintiffs in the case include Black Voters Matter, the Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and five individual voters who live within the contested district. The organizations issued a joint statement decrying the outcome.

“Today’s ruling does nothing to change the fact that the Governor’gs proposed map is a blatantly unconstitutional attack on Black representation in Florida,” it reads.

“Rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money defending this map, it is our hope the governor will drop this appeal and allow our state to move forward with congressional districts that follow the will of the voters under the Fair Districts Amendments and allow all Floridians to make their voices heard in decisions that directly impact their communities.

“On Emancipation Day in Florida, we are once again reminded that the fight for equal rights for all continues and we look forward to prevailing on behalf of the people of our state.”

(May 20 marks the day in 1865 that a Union Army officer read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee.)

The action names Secretary of State Cord Byrd (substituted in since the recent resignation of former secretary Laurel Lee) and leading members of the state House and Senate.

Racial gerrymander

DeSantis, by contrast, argues the district constitutes a racial gerrymander in violation of operative U.S. Supreme Court precedents. The Legislature attempted to retain some version of a district in North Florida with enough voting-age Blacks to ensure their ability to elect a candidate of their choice, but DeSantis vetoed that proposal and forced lawmakers to acquiesce.

The DeSantis map is far more partisan than the Legislature wanted, too — it gives 20 of the 28 seats to which Florida is entitled under the 2020 U.S. Census to his fellow Republicans. It also dilutes Black voting strength in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

A separate federal legal attack on the DeSantis map is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

In the state case, DeSantis cites U.S. Supreme Court precedents disfavoring using race as a predominant factor in drawing political boundaries. Smith ruled that that wasn’t the case here, because the Legislature cited additional, neutral factors, including the presence of a unified community of interest, in drawing the Black-access district.

Smith also found that the district’s length was not a disqualification under guidelines favoring compact districts, given Florida’s unusual geography, and that it is more compact than plenty of other districts nationally.

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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.