Florida appeals court ruling tossing congressional map

The fate of Florida’s congressional map now lies in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

Secretary of State Cord Byrd’s Office has officially appealed a circuit court ruling, one that declared the map drawn by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office wrongly diminished Black voting power in North Florida.

Leon Circuit Judge Lee Marsh on Saturday struck down the map and ordered that the Florida Legislature must craft new cartography that complies with the Fair Districts amendment in the state constitution.

“Not only is there no specific district under which this Court could evaluate whether racial gerrymandering occurred,” Marsh wrote, “but Defendants also lack standing to raise a racial gerrymandering challenge in the first place.”

But Byrd signaled immediately that the state would defend the map and appeal Marsh’s decision.

“We disagree with the trial court’s decision. This is why the stipulation contemplates an appeal with pass through jurisdiction to the Florida Supreme Court which we will be pursuing.”

A notice of appeal filed with the state offers no specific argument for the Florida Supreme Court different from what attorneys for Byrd and the Florida Legislature laid out in Marsh’s courtroom. But filing the appeal triggers an automatic stay on Marsh’s ruling until the state’s high court can weigh in on the matter.

The central conflict over the map has largely concerned the elimination of a Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district in North Florida. Represented for three terms in Congress by former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, the district spanned largely African American communities, including Gadsden County, Florida’s only majority Black county, and downtown Jacksonville.

While the Florida Supreme Court established that district in 2015, Justices ruled the Florida Legislature, in creating a different map in 2012, had violated the Fair Districts amendment.

When the Florida Legislature set out on creating a new map last year following a decennial census, lawmakers initially preserved the configuration of the Lawson district, adjusting only for population.

But DeSantis derided the district as an “unconstitutional gerrymander.” While lawmakers initially called that a “novel legal theory” and moved ahead with the district, DeSantis promised a veto. Lawmakers ultimately approved a different Black access seat based entirely in Duval County, one where analysts said the choice of Black voters would prevail in elections a majority of the time, and offered a map preserving Lawson’s district as a backup if the courts rejected DeSantis’ theory.

DeSantis said that plan didn’t go far enough and vetoed the cartography. Ultimately, his office created its own map, one that left no seats in North Florida where Black voters controlled the election — and consequently a map where no Democrats won election in North Florida.

Byrd’s Office has held to its theory, though plaintiffs challenging the map suggested in court that opinions of the Lawson district hardly matter now. The current map has no such district.

But the Fair Districts amendment in Florida’s Constitution prohibits diminishment of any ability of racial minorities to elect a Representative of their choice. Minority groups, led by the Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, said the state remains bound by the amendment approved by voters in 2010.

Marsh agreed, and also suggested in court that finding for the map would make his the first court in America to question the constitutionality of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Byrd, who voted for DeSantis’ map as a state lawmaker and against the map DeSantis vetoed, has held to the argument adhering to the Fair Districts amendment runs afoul of the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Attorneys for both sides of the redistricting case reached a stipulation agreement in lieu of a trial before Marsh. There, plaintiffs agreed to only challenge north Florida cartography and abandon arguments against lines statewide. The state acknowledged the elimination of Lawson’s seat diminished Black voting power but held that lawmakers could not keep the district as it was drawn with race as the primary motivation.

DeSantis and Byrd are now counting on the Florida Supreme Court being more sympathetic to that argument. Of note, five of seven Justices on the high court were appointed by DeSantis.

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