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State judge reinstates sprawling Black-oriented congressional district in North FL

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State judge reinstates sprawling Black-oriented congressional district in North FL

May 13, 2022 | 3:12 pm ET
By Michael Moline
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State judge reinstates sprawling Black-oriented congressional district in North FL
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Leon County Courthouse, March 11, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

A state trial judge has rejected Gov. Ron DeSantis’ demand to dismantle Congressional District 5, a sprawling, Black-access congressional district in North Florida, citing language in the state Constitution forbidding diminishment of minority voting strength.

Instead, Circuit Judge Layne Smith, sitting in Leon County, ordered adoption of a version of an existing congressional district that spans some 200 miles between Duval and Gadsden counties, including neighborhoods in Tallahassee, where Black votes carry enough weight to elect a Black member of Congress.

“Plaintiffs argue that they and other Florida votes will suffer irreparable harm if the violation [in the DeSantis plan] is not remedied prior to the 2022 elections, and furthermore claim that an injunction will serve the public interest,” Smith, a DeSantis appointee, wrote in a 20-page opinion.

“After a hearing and consideration of testimony, exhibits, pleadings, legal memoranda, and oral argument, the court grants plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary injunction,” he added.

The ruling, which Smith had announced earlier in the week, sets up an appeal to the Florida First District Court of Appeal, which could punt the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

The high court ordained the east-west configuration in 2015 and Black Democrat Al Lawson has held the seat ever since. There’s no guarantee, however that the existing court, rendered staunchly conservative by DeSantis appointees, would follow its own precedent.

Lawson’s response

In a written statement, Lawson welcomed the ruling.

State judge reinstates sprawling Black-oriented congressional district in North FL
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson Jr. Credit: Wikipedia.

“The judge recognizes that this map is unlawful and diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect representatives of their choice,” he said of the governor’s plan.

“DeSantis is wrong for enacting this Republican-leaning map that is in clear violation of the U.S. and state constitutions. It is critical to maintain Congressional District 5 so minority voters have a voice at the ballot box in November. I am optimistic that future courts will also do what is right.”

DeSantis communications chief Taryn Fenske offered a written statement:

“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level. We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida Legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it,” she said.

Pursuing the challenge were voting-rights groups including Black Voters Matter, the Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and five individual voters who live within the contested district.

It names Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees elections, Attorney General Ashley Moody, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and the head of the state House and Senate redistricting committees. Lee announced her resignation earlier this week.

A separate federal legal attack on the DeSantis map is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

DeSantis browbeat the Legislature into accepting his congressional map during a special session in April, although both the House and Senate initially wanted to maintain a Black-access district in the region. The House session broke down for about one hour because Black and other Democrats staged a noisy sit-in, but Republicans returned and pushed the governor’s map through to passage.

The starkly partisan DeSantis plan provides for 20 GOP seats among the 28 Florida is entitled to following the 2020 U.S. Census. It also splits Black communities in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, eliminating two of the state’s four reliable Black districts, but they didn’t figure in Smith’s order.

Smith acknowledged in a ruling handed down Thursday evening that this year’s elections are fast approaching.

“If this court had the luxury of time, it would take longer to render this order. Notwithstanding, because time is of the essence, the court renders this order now,” he wrote.

Reliably Black-performing

State judge reinstates sprawling Black-oriented congressional district in North FL
Judge Layne Smith. Credit: FL Second Judicial Circuit

When the Florida Supreme Court created the district in 2015, “The court acknowledged that an east-west configuration would result in a longer district with a correspondingly greater perimeter and area, but explained that length is just one factor to consider in evaluating compactness,” Smith wrote.

And that district has performed reliably for its Black voters who comprise 45.2 percent of the voting-age population (out of a total minority voting-age population of 59.8 percent). Meanwhile, the DeSantis plan would split the district into four new districts where whites would predominate, Smith wrote.

“The court finds that the enacted plan would diminish the ability of Black voters to elect their candidate of choice in North Florida. The secretary offers no credible contrary evidence,” he wrote.

DeSantis and his team argued that the district amounted to a “racial gerrymander” and violated Fair Districts amendment language requiring districts as compact as possible. They also cited recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings disfavoring consideration of race as a predominating factor in redistricting.

But evidence suggests race was not a predominating factor here, Smith concluded. Other considerations included the Legislature’s initial determination to avoid litigation by diminishing Black voting power and the danger of diminishing Black voting strength.

Additionally, the east-west district “is narrowly tailored to support a compelling state interest — compliance with Fair Districts, which itself follows the Voting Rights Act, Smith wrote.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed that compliance with the VRA constitutes a compelling state interest,” he wrote. “Given the substantial similarity between Section 5 of the VRA and the Fair Districts Amendment’s non-diminishment provision, compliance with the latter likewise constitutes a compelling state interest.”

Secondary importance

As for the compactness argument, courts have upheld districts that were less compact than the east-west CD 5. In fact, Smith wrote, this version of CD 5 is more compact than 65 other districts within the United States.

And, under Fair Districts, compactness is of secondary importance compared to nondiminishment of Black voting strength, he wrote.

Allowing the governor’s plan to take effect would result in “a violation of a fundamental constitutional right” for Black voters causing “irreparable harm,” Smith wrote.

“Plaintiffs have shown a clear likelihood that the enacted plan violates their fundamental right to vote and enjoining the enforcement of a law that encroaches on a fundamental constitutional right presumptively would serve the public interest.”

Smith rejected arguments under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Purcell doctrine constraining interference by federal courts in elections overly close to voting day, although the court has left the definition of too-close hazy.

In any case, Smith concluded, Purcell doesn’t bind state courts like his own. And, with primary elections set for Aug. 23, a number of county elections supervisors offered evidence they could adjust as long as the courts sign off on a new map soon.

“The court appreciates that its order may cause inconvenience, hard work, and expense. Notwithstanding, these concerns do not outweigh plaintiffs’ rights,” he wrote.

Note: This story has been updated to include remarks from the governor’s office.