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Judge will block DeSantis' redistricting map, says it's likely unconstitutional

Ron DeSantis speaking at the podium and poiting
Marta Lavandier
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Miami's Freedom Tower, on Monday, May 9, 2022, in Miami. A congressional map approved by DeSantis and drawn by his staff is unconstitutional because it breaks up a district where Black voters can choose their representatives, a state judge said Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

He agreed with voting-rights groups that said the changes to a North Florida congressional district would eliminate the ability of Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

Finding a congressional redistricting map pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis likely unconstitutional, a circuit judge Wednesday granted a temporary injunction because of changes to a North Florida congressional district where voting-rights groups say the ability of Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice would be eliminated.

The secretary of state’s office is expected to quickly appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal, which would lead to a stay being placed on the ruling.

Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith said the congressional map that lawmakers passed during a special session last month did not follow a voter-approved 2010 ballot initiative known as the “Fair Districts” amendment. DeSantis’ office drew up the map after the governor vetoed a plan passed in early March by the Legislature.

The lawsuit centers on Congressional District 5, which in recent years has sprawled more than 200 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee after being approved by the Florida Supreme Court. That district was designed to help elect a Black candidate and is held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.

DeSantis’ plan completely revamped the district, putting it in the Jacksonville area. Voting-rights groups argued in the lawsuit that the plan violated part of the Fair Districts amendment that bars diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”

“My state Supreme Court has issued an opinion (in the past) finding that the benchmark Congressional District 5 met constitutional muster,” Smith said, referring to the sprawling shape of the district in recent years. “And this is after the Fair District amendment had been passed.”

The Supreme Court in 2015 approved the sprawling layout after finding the Legislature failed to follow the Fair Districts requirements in 2012.

Smith said he wasn’t going to order the Legislature back into session but would recommend a map proposal from this year’s regular legislative session that would affect the least number of counties and voting precincts.

Smith indicated he expects the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal to act “swiftly” in the state’s appeal. Generally, circuit-court rulings are stayed when the state appeals.

“We need to get this right as soon as we can,” Smith said.

John Devaney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, which include the League of Women Voters of Florida, Equal Ground, Florida Rising and Black Lives Matter, argued it’s not too late to make alterations to the map before the Aug. 23 primary elections.

Candidates are making plans to run based on the map passed during the special session, with qualifying set from June 13 to June 17.

The request for an injunction focused on District 5, though voting rights groups also question the legality of changes to districts in the Orlando and Tampa areas. The DeSantis plan would be expected to increase the number of Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation from 16 to 20 based on 2020 voting patterns.

“We believe there are violations of the Florida Constitution in multiple parts of this redistricting map, but we decided to bring this narrow claim, focus on CD 5 and the districts that are affected by the dismantling of CD 5, in part to ensure that we could have a remedy for the 370,000 people (of the district),” Devaney said.

Representatives for the plaintiffs acknowledged this week that while the full lawsuit might be heard later this summer or in the early fall, the entire process — because of anticipated appeals — likely won’t be settled until after the 2022 elections.

Devaney argued that dismantling District 5, without replacing it with a new district that would be likely to elect a Black candidate, violates what is known as the “non-diminishment” requirement in the Fair Districts amendment.

“The Black voters in that district have been dispersed (in the plan passed during the special session) across four different districts, all of which are white majority districts,” Devaney said.

Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor of government, testified for the plaintiffs that by using other map proposals put forward during the regular legislative session, boundary changes could be made by impacting just two other North Florida districts, rather than 12 districts as indicated by the state.

The state maintains that proposals backed by the voting-rights groups would lead to a “racially gerrymandered” map and would burden county supervisors of election as they prepare for this year’s elections.

Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for Secretary of State Laurel Lee, told Smith that the groups’ desire to maintain the current east-west configuration for District 5 violates the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. Constitution.

“Over 80 percent of the population in this configured district would be in Duval and Leon, two counties,” Jazil said. “So, we are drawing a 200-mile district, anchored by two counties.”

Jazil said the proposed temporary injunction asked the court to rush to a conclusion on the pending lawsuit. He questioned whether only two counties could be impacted and whether supervisors of elections could handle delays.

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