Appellate court hears arguments in Florida’s congressional redistricting case appeal

by | Oct 31, 2023

  • Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a review of alleged racial biases in the state’s congressional redistricting map, with a focus on the elimination of Congressional District 5 (CD5).
  • During the hearing, plaintiffs claimed the new districts undermine Black voters, but Appellate Judge Brad Thomas questioned their adherence to the ‘Gingles test’.
  • Both sides seek an expedited resolution due to the 2024 elections, particularly after a prior ruling deemed the current map unconstitutional.

The 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments on Tuesday as part of Florida’s ongoing congressional redistricting case, centered around allegations of racial bias in the reconfiguration of North Florida’s Congressional District 5 (CD5).

The lawsuit, originally brought forth by a coalition of organizations and individual plaintiffs, alleges that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ redistricting plan violates the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment of 2010 by unfairly reducing the voting power of Black residents in North Florida. The redistricting plan culminated in eliminating Congressional District 5, held by former Representative Al Lawson, which had previously encompassed North Florida stretching from Tallahassee to Duval County.

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 Fair Districts amendment

“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.

Appellate Judge Brad Thomas, meanwhile, questioned the plaintiffs’ claims that CD5 should be maintained, indicating that such a configuration might not meet the criteria of the ‘Gingles test,’ which posits that a district serving a minority should be designed to safeguard a cohesive community.

“For the district to be protected it has to remedy some discrimination in the first place,” said Thomas. “You’re running away from Gingles because you know you can’t establish it.”

State officials, however, assert that the current maps focus on geographical and political coherence, deliberately excluding racial considerations. The state’s defense heavily references DeSantis’ veto of a previously proposed racially gerrymandered map, emphasizing his stance that race-based districts are “not only counterproductive” but also “violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.”

DeSantis also sought legal advice from the Florida Supreme Court in January of last year, inquiring as to 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,” DeSantis wrote.

Last month, attorneys representing both sides in the lawsuit jointly petitioned for an expedited resolution of the case. The motion followed a decision granted by Leon Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, who in September ruled that the current congressional map violates both the state constitution and the Fair Districts amendment. Both sides in the lawsuit have entered into a stipulation agreement, seeking to conclude the case before the commencement of Florida’s Legislative Session in January.

The attorneys further contended that an expedited timeline is necessary because the qualifying period for candidates running for Congress in the 2024 elections begins on April 8, 2024, and a failure to settle the lawsuit would prevent potential candidates from planning their campaigns accordingly.

“This appeal requires immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court to provide certainty to voters, potential candidates, and elections officials regarding the configuration and validity of Florida’s congressional districts sufficiently in advance of the 2024 elections,” reads the appeal.

The requested expedited timeline would also provide lawmakers with the opportunity to redraw the district boundaries, if necessary, and allow for potential additional legal proceedings before the April qualifying period. Following Marsh’s ruling, Florida’s Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the state House and Senate filed an appeal, which automatically halted the enforcement of Marsh’s decision during the appeal process.


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