DeSantis notches another legal victory as federal court upholds congressional map

by | Mar 28, 2024

A federal appellate court ruled in favor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, upholding Florida’s congressional map against claims of racial discrimination, with the court finding insufficient evidence of racial motivation in its creation.

A federal appellate court affirmed the legality of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map, handing the governor another legal victory.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Wednesday upheld the state’s contested congressional map, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove the Florida Legislature acted with racial discrimination as a motivating factor in passing it. Thus, the plaintiffs’ claims of intentional vote dilution under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments failed. The ruling was based on the assertion that to succeed, plaintiffs needed to establish both a discriminatory purpose and effect, which could not be demonstrated, according to the panel of three judges.

“The plaintiffs have not proven that the Legislature acted with race as a motivating factor in passing the Enacted Map. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ intentional vote dilution claims fail,” reads the order.

The plaintiffs, led by Common Cause and the NAACP, contended that the map was drafted in order to dilute the voting power of Black voters in North Florida. They argued this was achieved by eliminating a congressional district that historically supported Black candidates, in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which aim to protect against racial discrimination and ensure equal voting rights.

“[E]ven assuming that Governor DeSantis acted with some unlawful discriminatory motive in creating and proposing the redistricting map that was ultimately enacted into law, the plaintiffs have not proven that the Florida Legislature had a similar motive in adopting and passing that map,” the order continues. “Because that failure to prove the requisite intent is fatal to the plaintiffs’ vote dilution claims under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, we need not and do not address how dilutive effect can (or must) be proven for constitutional vote dilution claims.”

Adalberto Jordan, an Obama-appointed judge on the panel, provided a dissenting opinion, expressing his belief that the governor was partially motivated by racial considerations in the redistricting process, specifically in relation to the elimination of Congressional District 5, formerly held by Rep. Al Lawson. Jordan differentiated between holding a personal racial animus and using race as a means to achieve other ends, suggesting that the latter was at play in DeSantis’ actions.

“The undeniable disparate impact of the Enacted Map weighs heavily in favor of a finding that race was a motivating factor for Governor DeSantis,” he wrote.

He clarified that the governor’s use of race, in his view, served the pursuit of incumbency or partisan advantage, which constituted an impermissible use. However, Jordan concurred with the majority’s decision in that the plaintiffs did not successfully prove that the Legislature ratified or adopted the governor’s use of race as a motivating factor.

DeSantis, during legal deliberations, insisted that creating a district based on racial considerations is counterproductive and violates the principle of race-neutrality as mandated by the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, ostensibly contending that heeding the plaintiffs’ demands would necessitate “racial gerrymandering.”

In 2010, Florida voters ratified the Fair Districts Amendments to enforce redistricting criteria that prohibits favoritism towards political parties or incumbents and protect the voting rights of minorities. This framework influenced a 2012 Supreme Court directive for the east-west orientation of Congressional District 5 (CD-5) between Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

During the 2022 redistricting cycle, the Florida Legislature initially sought to retain a district favorable to Black voters in North Florida. Contrary to this, DeSantis proposed a map eliminating such a district. The Legislature’s compromise attempts were ultimately vetoed by DeSantis, who then advanced his map, which led directly to the subsequent legal challenge.

Following the ruling, Common Cause posted on X that it will “carefully analyze” the panel’s decision and “determine what it means for Floridians,” concurrently expressing disappointment in the upholding of the map. The case can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

“There’ll be another review from the Florida Supreme Court, but I don’t think you’re going to see anything different than what’s already been happening,” DeSantis said during a Thursday morning press conference. “The reality is we were right in 2022 to veto the map, we were right to sign the revised map and we were right when we said that they would be upheld in the courts as being constitutional.”


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