Appeals court reinstates DeSantis’ redistricting plan, rejects claims of racial impact

by | Dec 1, 2023

  • The First District Court of Appeals overturned a previous ruling, reinstating Governor Ron DeSantis’ congressional district maps set for Florida after the 2020 census.
  • The appellate court found that the plaintiffs, including Black Voters Matter and Equal Ground Education Fund, did not prove that the redistricting negatively impacted a naturally existing Black community, focusing on the lack of a majority Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) in the new districts.
  • The court’s decision emphasized the need for evidence beyond statistical data to demonstrate a legally cognizable claim of racial minority’s diminished electoral representation. It concluded that the plaintiffs did not show a conflict between the new redistricting law and the Florida Fair Districts Amendment.

The First District Court of Appeals on Friday overturned a lower court ruling that struck down Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional district maps. The appellate court’s decision now reinstates the boundaries set for Florida’s congressional districts after the 2020 census.

In its reversal, the appellate court highlighted that the plaintiffs, including Black Voters Matter and Equal Ground Education Fund, failed to prove that the redistricting negatively impacted a naturally existing Black community, with the challenge primarily relying on voting statistics and demographic data.

The court noted that in the former Congressional District 5 (CD-5), the Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) was around 46 percent, with these voters mainly supporting Democratic candidates. However, in the new districts, the BVAP did not constitute a majority.

In the written ruling, the appellate court clarified that the pertinent legal question was predicated on whether the redistricting reduced the ability of a racial minority to elect preferred representatives.

The decision, per the document, emphasized the need for evidence beyond statistical data, focusing on the presence of a cohesive, geographically concentrated minority group. The court concluded that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate a conflict between the FDA and the new redistricting law, leading to the reinstatement of the governor’s maps.

“In order to demonstrate a legally cognizable claim that an “apportionment plan or individual district … diminish[es] [a member of a racial minority’s] ability to elect representatives of [his or her] choice,” does a plaintiff first have to establish that he or she is part of a geographically discrete and compact minority community of historically natural existence?” Wrote the panel of judges. “The trial court found it unnecessary to answer the question, and the plaintiffs failed to submit any evidence to this effect.”

The earlier judgment by a lower court had declared the new districts as conflicting with the state’s Fair Districts Amendment (FDA), which serves to ensure that the ability of racial minorities to elect their chosen representatives is not diminished. The crux of the argument was that the elimination of CD-5, a district with a large Black population, was a violation of the FDA.

Democrat House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell weighed in on the ruling following its issuance, referring to it as “unprecedented interference” culminating in a “tainted, ruined product.”

“The unprecedented interference by the Governor in submitting these maps to the state has made this a tainted, ruined process from the beginning, and it is at the cost of my constituents and my community,” said Driskell in a prepared statement. “Protected districts were created to give minority voters the chance to have a representative that looks like them and represents their interests, and that chance has been unceremoniously stripped by the Legislature and the courts.”

Attorney Jyoti Jasrasaria, representing the plaintiffs, contested that the boundaries endorsed by DeSantis hinder Black voters in North Florida from electing their preferred congressional Representative, directly contravening the FDA.

“The Florida Supreme Court has been very clear that the non-diminishment provision bars a state from adopting redistricting plans that have the purpose or will have the effect of diminishing the ability of any citizens to be interpreted according to federal law,” said Jasrasaria.

Despite the shift in demographics and a growing Republican voter base, the plaintiffs have argued that the revamped electoral map was instrumental in the Republican victories across North Florida congressional districts.

During the appeals court hearing on Oct. 31,  judges appeared to express doubts about the plaintiffs’ arguments, extending to questions about the validity of a 2015 Supreme Court decision that had approved the district, with Judge Adam Tanenbaum, a DeSantis appointee, querying why the court shouldn’t reassess that decision.

Moreover, state attorneys have insisted in past deliberations that DeSantis and the Florida Legislature were vigilant in avoiding discriminatory intent. J. Alex Kelly, a key aide to DeSantis involved in the redistricting process, is said to have focused on creating districts that respected both political and geographical boundaries, rather than considering racial elements that underpin the plaintiff’s case.

DeSantis also sought legal advice from the Florida Supreme Court in January of last year, inquiring whether his proposed redistricting plan would be valid per the Fair Districts standard, though the state’s highest court declined to intervene.

In his letter to the Supreme Court, DeSantis probed about the “non-diminishment standard” in the Florida Constitution, which prevents districts from being drawn that will diminish the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.

“Specifically, I ask whether the Florida Constitution’s non-diminishment standard requires that congressional districts be drawn to connect minority populations from distant and distinct geographic areas if doing so would provide the assembled minority group sufficient voting strength — although not a majority of the proposed district — to elect a candidate of its choice,” the governor wrote.


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