Florida seeks to end court fight over DeSantis congressional redistricting plan (2024)


TALLAHASSEE — The state has urged the Florida Supreme Court to decline to take up a challenge to the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Legislature, in filings late Friday, said the Supreme Court should let stand a Dec. 1 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that backed the plan. The filings also pointed to a time crunch as the legislative session starts next week and the 2024 elections near.

“The First District’s decision is correct, these facts (in the case) are unlikely to recur, and review at this late stage would leave state election officials uncertain as they prepare for the 2024 primaries,” attorneys for Byrd, the state’s chief elections official, wrote.

Voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs last month asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, which centers on a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was overhauled during an April 2022 special legislative session. The overhaul put the district, Congressional District 5, in the Jacksonville area, and white Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

The plaintiffs argued the overhaul violated part of a 2010 constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” While a Leon County circuit judge agreed with the plaintiffs, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ruled in favor of the state.

In a Dec. 13 brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, lawyers for the plaintiffs contended the appeals court’s decision violated Supreme Court precedents in redistricting cases, including a case that led to the former design of Congressional District 5.

“In sum, the First DCA (District Court of Appeal) expressly contravened and cast aside this (Supreme) Court’s decisions interpreting the Fair Districts Amendments and established a new test that cannot be reconciled with multiple decisions of this court,” the brief said. “The court should assert jurisdiction to correct the First DCA’s brazen attempt to ignore this court’s precedent.”

The brief also asked justices to “decide this appeal no later than March 2024 such that a remedy, if necessary, may be implemented in time for the 2024 elections.” If the Supreme Court finds the plan unconstitutional, it likely would require the Legislature to redraw congressional districts.

A key issue in the 1st District Court of Appeal’s ruling was the sprawling shape of the former Congressional District 5. The district stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas with significant numbers of Black voters.

The appeals court’s main opinion said the protection offered by what is known as the “non-diminishment” clause of the Fair Districts Amendment and the federal Voting Rights Act “is of the voting power of ‘a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.’” It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

In the filings late Friday, attorneys for Byrd and the Legislature disputed that the appeals-court ruling violated Supreme Court precedents and cited the sprawling nature of the former district, known in the case as “Benchmark CD-5.”

“The First District rightly rejected petitioners’ (the plaintiffs’) non-diminishment claim,” attorneys for Byrd wrote. “Petitioners failed to prove that Benchmark CD-5 contained a compact and naturally occurring black community with shared interests, or that the district was reasonably configured.”

If the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, both sides would file more-detailed briefs and possibly appear before the court for arguments. The candidate-qualifying period for 2024 congressional races is scheduled from April 22 to April 26.

After Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh sided with the plaintiffs in September, attorneys for both sides requested that the case be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court through a process known as “certification.” That would have effectively led to the 1st District Court of Appeal not hearing arguments and issuing a ruling.

The request was aimed at receiving a Supreme Court decision before the Jan. 9 start of the legislative session. That would have allowed lawmakers to redraw the map, if needed, during the session, which is scheduled to end March 8.

But the Tallahassee-based appeals court rejected the request, ultimately resulting in the Dec. 1 ruling. The Supreme Court typically takes months to issue opinions in major cases.

“Given the current legislative and elections calendars, a second round of appellate review (before the Supreme Court) would revive uncertainty over the validity of the enacted plan,” attorneys for the House and Senate wrote Friday. “Even expedited proceedings before this (Supreme) Court would likely extend deep into the Legislature’s regular session, which is scheduled to conclude on March 8, 2024, or beyond.”

A separate challenge to the redistricting plan is pending in federal court. That case involves federal constitutional issues.

Florida seeks to end court fight over DeSantis congressional redistricting plan (2024)
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