State targets senate redistricting challenge

by | Apr 29, 2024

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd has requested the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that a 2022 state Senate redistricting plan diluted Black voters’ influence in two Tampa Bay area districts, arguing the plaintiffs cannot prove discriminatory effects under the 14th Amendment.

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd has asked a federal court to toss out a lawsuit challenging a state Senate redistricting plan passed in 2022, disputing allegations that the design of two districts in the Tampa Bay area diluted the power of Black voters.

Attorneys for Byrd filed a motion last week arguing that a three-judge panel should dismiss the case, which was filed April 10 in Tampa. The case, filed on behalf of five residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg, names Byrd and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that Senate District 16 and Senate District 18 are gerrymandered and violate constitutional equal-protection rights. District 16, which is represented by Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Black Democrat from St. Petersburg, crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. White Republican Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach represents District 18, which is made up of part of Pinellas County.

But in the motion filed Thursday, Byrd’s attorneys argued that the plaintiffs cannot meet a legal test of showing a “discriminatory effect” as part of the vote-dilution claim under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Equal protection is part of the 14th Amendment.

The motion said that “nowhere in their complaint do plaintiffs ever allege that the creation of a majority-black district is even possible as an alternative to Senate District 18 (or Senate District 16 for that matter).”

“(The) complaint makes clear that there is no configuration of the Senate districts where the Black population constitutes a majority of the population in a district. Not one. … Without a majority-minority district, plaintiffs fail to state a vote-dilution claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. This court should thus dismiss the complaint,” the motion said.

The lawsuit makes a series of allegations, including that “racial gerrymandering unjustifiably packed Black voters into District 16, stripping them from adjacent District 18 and reducing their influence there.” The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law and the firm Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig LLP.

“The state drew these districts purportedly to avoid diminishing Black voters’ ability to elect representatives of their choice in District 16, but the state unnecessarily used race to disregard traditional, race-neutral redistricting considerations,” the 31-page lawsuit said. “And far from advancing representation, the enacted districts dilute Black voters’ power. The state could have drawn these districts to both avoid the diminishment of Black voting power and respect traditional redistricting criteria. Instead, the state engaged in racial gerrymandering that unconstitutionally abridges plaintiffs’ rights to the equal protection of the laws.”

Lawmakers gave final approval to the redistricting plan in February 2022, and the districts were used in the 2022 elections. Rouson received 63.9 percent of the vote in District 16, while DiCeglie received 56.9 percent in District 18. Neither seat is slated to be on this year’s ballot.

The lawsuit came after a three-judge federal panel last month rejected a constitutional challenge to a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022. A state appeals court also rejected a separate challenge to the congressional plan, though an appeal of that decision is pending at the Florida Supreme Court.

While the congressional redistricting plan has long been controversial, the Senate map had drawn relatively little attention until the lawsuit was filed in Tampa.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the districts are unconstitutional, an injunction to block elections from being held in the districts and a ”remedial decree that ensures plaintiffs live and vote in constitutional districts.”

Unlike typical lawsuits, three-judge panels hear redistricting cases. The Senate case has been assigned to Andrew Brasher, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals, and Charlene Edwards Honeywell and Thomas Barber, judges in the federal Middle District of Florida.

Byrd’s lawyers include Tallahassee attorneys Mohammad Jazil and Michael Beato, who also have represented the state in the congressional redistricting case.


%d bloggers like this: