A state trial court has declared unlawful Gov. Ron DeSantis’ intention to eliminate Black voters’ right to pick a congressional candidate of their choice in the northern portion of the state, citing Florida’s long history of discrimination against Black voters.
The verdict may decide whether Democrat Al Lawson, a Black man who represented the large expanse of North Florida at issue between 2017 and this year, will run for re-election.
Circuit Judge Lee Marsh, sitting in Leon County, barred Secretary of State Cord Byrd from running any more elections under the governor’s plan, which favored white voters over Black voters, and said the Legislature should create a Black-performing district similar to the one that once stretched 200 miles between Duval and Gadsden counties.
Many descendants of enslaved individuals who toiled on North Florida’s plantation belt were drawn to the historic neighborhood.
“The verdict, issued on Saturday, might set up DeSantis for a U.S. Supreme Court test case on the extent to which the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and Florida’s Fair Districts state constitutional amendments enable congressional districts to consider race.”
The Fair Districts language prohibits redrawing districts to reduce minority voting power and targets political gerrymandering.
However, whether DeSantis will be successful in his quest is questionable in light of the United States Supreme Court’s rejection earlier this year of the state of Alabama’s identical “race neutral” arguments.
Alabama was compelled by the court to construct two congressional districts in which Blacks could vote for Black candidates.
“Florida has long been a state with voting discrimination, and the people of this state demanded a Florida analogue to the VRA to finally rid the state of it.”
“The court thus concludes that the Florida Constitution’s non-diminishment provision is justified by a compelling state interest in rooting out persistent discrimination in the state, and that compliance with the provision itself is a compelling state interest,” Marsh said.
Choose their leaders
Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and consulting director of Equal Ground Education Fund, one of the civil rights organizations that sued the governor over the plan he imposed on the Legislature, applauded the verdict.
“Voters should have the authority to choose their leaders, not the other way around.” Today’s decision “confirms that Gov. DeSantis forced a compliant Legislature to adopt a gerrymandered congressional map that diminished minority representation, disenfranchised voters, and clearly violated the Fair District Amendments,” she said in a written statement.
“The rejection of this gerrymandered map was only possible because Florida’s redistricting coalition successfully challenged the governor’s unconstitutional map in court.”
We commend the judge’s decision, which recognizes the need to restore Black Floridians’ voting power in North Florida and paves the way for a map that allows voters in that area to choose a candidate of their choice. Floridians must remember this racially motivated attack on our democracy.
“Our coalition will never relent in our efforts to protect all Floridians’ voting rights,” Burney-Clark concluded.
“This case is about whether the Legislature violated the Florida Constitution by limiting the ability of Black voters in North Florida to elect representatives of their choice in its most recent congressional redistricting plan.” It’s also about whether the Florida Constitution clause violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“In a nutshell, the answers are yes and no.” For these reasons, the authorized map will be declared illegal, and the secretary of state will be barred from utilizing it in future congressional elections.
This court will remand the case to the Legislature so that a new map that conforms with the Florida Constitution may be enacted.”
The text of the Fair Districts Act was inspired by the Voting Rights Act. It states, in part, that “no apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent or result of favoring or disfavoring a political party or an incumbent; and districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or diminishing their ability to elect representatives of their choice; and districts shall consist of contiguous territory.”
Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida Education Fund,
Florida Rising Together, and individual Florida voters, including several Black voters who resided in Benchmark CD-5 — that is, the version of Congressional District 5 that the Florida Supreme Court drew to conform to the 2010 U.S. Census and served as the basis for the Legislature’s initial redistricting — also sued over the plan.
The Legislature also proposed a more compact Black-performing district in Duval County, which DeSantis turned down.
The plaintiffs first challenged several districts claiming the governor’s plan favored white voters, but agreed with attorneys for Byrd, the state House, and the state Senate to concentrate on the North Florida district.
To bring the matter before the United States Supreme Court, state-entity attorneys stated that the district was unlawful under current rules controlling the VRA and Fair Districts.
Marsh ruled that state entities are barred from challenging those interpretations in any case because only individual voters who live in an affected district have standing to challenge political districts, which means they have suffered or may suffer injury in the form of diminished voting power.
“But defendants — government entities sued in their official capacities — do not and cannot demonstrate that they would suffer special representational harms if voters were sorted into a challenged district based on race,” he said.
Furthermore, the state plaintiffs have not shown that race was the primary reason for establishing a Black-performing district in North Florida, he noted.
“Indeed, the United States Supreme Court recently rejected the state’s contention that mapmakers must be ‘completely blind’ to race when drawing districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act… and reaffirmed ‘the line that we have long drawn between consciousness and predominance’ of race,” March noted.
Furthermore, the long east-west district meets other Fair Districts and VRA standards, such as contiguity (meaning “all parts of a district are connected, rather than meeting only at a common corner or right angle”) and respect for geographical and political boundaries (meaning it would not unduly split cities and counties).
“Relatedly, the court concludes that the length of the district is largely due to North Florida’s rural geography and sparse population.” Indeed, before the creation of the East-West CD-5, Florida’s congressional design from 2002 through 2012 featured a district spanning from Leon County to Duval County,” Marsh said.
This strategy “is entirely consistent with the geography, demographics, and the state’s tradition of congressional districting in North Florida.”
And the plaintiffs are not required to suggest a district that fits all legal standards – that is the role of the Legislature, he said. “Because the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to state action, private citizens and organizations, such as plaintiffs, are excluded.”