Appeals court puts Florida’s controversial elections law back on track
The decision will almost certainly keep in place for this year’s elections the controversial 2021 law that created additional hurdles for voters to cast ballots by mail.
Calling it flawed, a three-judge appellate panel on Friday put a hold on a federal judge’s ruling that said a 2021 Florida elections law was unconstitutionally intended to discriminate against Black voters.
The 15-page ruling by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with attorneys for the state, county elections supervisors and national Republican organizations, who asked for a stay of a March 31 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
Friday’s decision will almost certainly keep in place for this year’s elections the controversial 2021 law that created additional hurdles for voters to cast ballots by mail. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the law, approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature and championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was intended to make it harder for Black and Hispanic Floridians to register and vote.
Numerous civil-rights and voting-rights organizations challenged parts of the law that placed restrictions on the use of “drop boxes” for submitting vote-by-mail ballots, imposed additional regulations on voter-registration organizations and prevented groups from providing items such as food and water to voters waiting in line at polling places.
In his March decision, Walker wrote that the law (SB 90) “runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters and intentionally targeting minority voters.”
The chief judge also made the rare move of putting the state under a process known as judicial “preclearance,” meaning a court would have to sign off on most changes to Florida election laws for the next decade.
But the appellate panel’s ruling Friday said Walker failed to adequately take into account previous court decisions establishing that changes to voting laws can confuse voters in the run-up to elections.
“And that risk only increases as an election draws closer,” the order by Judges Kevin Newson, Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Brasher said.
Walker’s ruling came less than five months before the state’s Aug. 23 primary elections and as local elections are ongoing, the panel noted.
Walker found that parts of the law were intended to discriminate against Black voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The judge also decided that the Legislature would not have passed the provisions “absent an intent to discriminate against Black voters,” a constitutional violation.
But the panel found that Walker’s “determination regarding the Legislature’s intentional discrimination suffers from at least two flaws, either of which justifies a stay.”
First, the panel took issue with the notion that the 2021 law is a product of intentional race discrimination.
Walker described discrimination in the state dating back to voting laws enacted after the Civil War, calling it a “grotesque history of racial discrimination.”
But the panel found that Walker’s analysis did not seem to be appropriately focused or limited, as previous court rulings require.
The appellate judges also scolded Walker for failing to “properly account for what might be called the presumption of legislative good faith.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has advised that, when considering whether statutes are tainted by discriminatory intent, “the good faith of the state legislature must be presumed,” Friday’s ruling said.
“For starters, in its 288-page opinion, the district court never once mentioned the presumption. And while we do not require courts to incant magic words, it does not appear to us that the district court here meaningfully accounted for the presumption at all,” the judges wrote.
Walker’s decision pointed to comments by Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the 2021 bill. When asked by a fellow senator if the legislation would disenfranchise voters, Baxley acknowledged that, based on “the patterns of use,” some voters “may have to go about it a little different way” once the bill becomes law.
But Friday’s ruling indicated that Walker, who is based in Tallahassee, read too much into Baxley’s comments.
“Applying the presumption of good faith --- as a court must --- that statement by a single legislator is not fairly read to demonstrate discriminatory intent by the state Legislature,” the panel wrote. “Moreover --- even if we do not presume good faith --- that statement at worst demonstrates an ‘awareness of consequences,’ which is insufficient discriminatory purposes.”
DeSantis and Republican lawmakers contended that the voting-law changes were needed, at least in part, to help prevent election fraud — a high-profile issue for the GOP nationally after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.
But opponents argued that the changes were designed to suppress the votes of Black Floridians, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
Friday’s decision also blocked Walker’s order putting the state under federal preclearance for elections laws.
In a motion last month for a stay of Walker’s ruling, attorneys for the state took aim at the preclearance requirement, saying “Florida’s elections are now dictated by a single judge in Tallahassee.”
“Far from a ‘rarely used’ remedy for the most ‘systematic and deliberate’ cases of discrimination, the district court’s reasoning would make preclearance the norm in voting-rights cases,” the motion said, partially quoting from a legal precedent. “That the court reached for this blunderbuss remedy — effectively putting Florida in a decade-long federal receivership — is reason enough to stay its order.”
In a brief filed last month, plaintiffs asked the Atlanta-based appeals court to reject the state’s request to put Walker’s ruling on hold.
“In sum, appellants fail to show that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their appeal of the district court’s finding that SB 90 was passed with discriminatory intent,” a brief filed by the NAACP and Florida Rising Together said. “The district court’s factual findings were supported by ample record evidence, and appellants have not, and cannot, demonstrate that these findings were clearly erroneous.”
The judges on the panel were appointed by Trump. Lagoa is a former Florida Supreme Court justice, who was appointed to the state court by DeSantis. Walker was appointed by former President Barack Obama.