Deal reached in suit over DeSantis’ congressional redistricting map of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to dismantle a North Florida congressional district formerly held by a Black Democrat could be reversed, according to a surprise agreement reached late Friday by lawyers for the state and civil rights groups challenging Florida’s map.

Under the agreement, the plaintiffs will drop their legal challenges to congressional districts in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, and focus arguments on the North Florida district they say violates state and federal voting rights protections for Black voters.

While the agreement filed Friday eliminates the need for the two-week trial that was set to begin next week, the matter is unlikely to end there and could set up a legal challenge to Florida’s landmark Fair Districts amendment that established constitutional limits on political gerrymandering.

The settlement states that whoever loses can immediately appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, where a majority of justices have been appointed by DeSantis.

The settlement said the parties will seek a Supreme Court decision by Dec. 31, which would open the door for legislators to adopt a new map, if necessary, during the legislative session that begins in January.

“This is a landmark decision that none of us have seen given the history of redistricting in the state of Florida but it submits what we have known all along to be true — our state has been diminishing the voting power of Black citizens for decades,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with Black Voters Matter, Equal Ground, Florida Rising and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Neither the governor’s office, nor House and Senate leadership, would comment on the proposed settlement, which allows Leon County Circuit Court Judge J. Lee Marsh to reverse much of what they had agreed to.

Contrasting positions

DeSantis argued in February 2022 that the Republican plan to stretch a district across North Florida to help elect a Black candidate was unconstitutional race-based gerrymandering and would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. He threatened to veto any map that included the configuration.

The subsequent map dismantled the district held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, who lost his seat in 2022, and helped DeSantis deliver four additional Republicans to Congress that year.

But since then, U.S. Supreme Court decisions on redistricting in North Carolina and Alabama have raised questions about whether the nation’s highest court is ready to unravel the remaining minority protections in the federal Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs argue that when Florida legislative leaders backed off their congressional map in favor of one drawn by DeSantis, they violated Florida’s Fair Districts amendment to the state Constitution, which mirror protections in the Voting Rights Act, because the district unfairly diminished Black political power in North Florida.

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The settlement agreement sets up the dispute this way: The state acknowledges that “if the non-diminishment standard applies to North Florida, then there is no Black-performing district in North Florida under the enacted map” and it agrees to a predetermined timetable for legislators to return to restore that district in time for the 2024 elections.

But if the state prevails and the court agrees that the state’s redistricting standards violate the Equal Protection Clause, the ruling “would nonetheless prohibit the creation of a Black-performing district in North Florida.”

The lawyers for the state also agreed that if it loses, it will follow a predetermined schedule to have legislators restore the congressional district DeSantis ordered Florida’s Republican legislative leaders to remove. Congressional District 5 stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee.

Burney-Clark acknowledged the settlement was “a gamble” because it opens the possibility that a court could invalidate portions of Florida’s Fair District standards aimed at prohibiting gerrymandering. Voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment to the Constitution in 2010 to prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts that both favor incumbents and diminish the voting strength of minority voters.

“It is certainly a gamble but it’s one that’s necessary because not taking it leaves us with the possibility of always asking ‘what if,’ ” she said.

Lawson’s prediction: “Unconstitutional”

In February 2022, before losing his seat to Republican U.S. Rep. Neil Dunn of Panama City, Lawson warned legislators the plan would be deemed unconstitutional.

“This unconstitutional map violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Districts provision of the Florida Constitution by diluting the voting power of minority communities of interest in north Florida and diminishing the ability of African American voters west of Jacksonville to elect the representative of their choice,” he said.

Instead of a two-week trial, the parties will submit the settlement proposal to the judge on Aug. 24 and he will decide either from the bench or in a subsequent ruling whether to approve it.

A separate lawsuit over Florida’s congressional maps is pending in federal court. U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor has scheduled a trial to begin Sept. 26.

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