- Voting-rights groups are challenging a congressional redistricting plan approved by Republican lawmakers in Florida, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
- Initially, a Leon County circuit judge ruled that the redistricting plan violated the state Constitution, particularly impacting a North Florida district that previously elected Black Democrat Al Lawson.
- However, during a recent 1st District Court of Appeal hearing, some judges appeared skeptical of the groups’ arguments, raising questions about the 2015 Supreme Court decision and the constitutionality of the redistricting changes.
Voting-rights groups headed to the courthouse after Republican lawmakers last year approved a congressional redistricting plan pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
And in September, it looked like the groups might succeed: A Leon County circuit judge ruled that the plan violated the state Constitution because of the way it overhauled a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson.
But the picture changed this week when the 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments, with some judges clearly skeptical of the groups’ arguments.
The groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida Rising Together, and other plaintiffs contend that the overhaul of North Florida’s Congressional District 5 violated part of a 2010 constitutional amendment that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” The overhaul led to white Republicans getting elected in all North Florida congressional districts in the 2022 elections.
Jyoti Jasrasaria, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said during Tuesday’s appeals-court hearing that the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 approved the Lawson district and that DeSantis defied Supreme Court precedent in pushing for the changes last year.
“The only map that is before this court is the enacted map (approved in 2022), and that map, it’s undisputed, does not comply with the Florida Constitution,” Jasrasaria said.
But Judge Adam Tanenbaum, who was appointed to the bench by DeSantis, asked at one point why the appeals court shouldn’t question the 2015 Supreme Court decision.
“It’s acting in a political capacity when it’s drawing a district, which is the same with what the Legislature typically would do,” Tanenbaum said. “So why isn’t it fair to question what the Supreme Court did when it was enacting, or approving the enactment, of (a) court-drawn set of districts?”
State Solicitor General Henry Whitaker said lawmakers last year drew a “race-neutral map” and that keeping a district that mirrored the Lawson district would have been an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Judge Robert Long, another DeSantis appointee, said the Florida Supreme Court has not addressed the equal-protection argument and how that should affect the interpretation of the 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts amendment.
“There’s nothing that has discussed this equal protection issue in light of the Fair Districts amendment,” Long said.
It is not clear when the appeals court will rule, but the case is expected to go to the Florida Supreme Court. That seven-member court includes five DeSantis appointees.